wisdom

We Chose Love: Making Peace With My Father.

Relationships with anyone can be complicated and challenging, but my relationship with my father was non-existent. It had been 25 years since I had spoken to him.

Sitting on my patio with an envelope in my hand with his return address on it was shocking enough. The anticipation of opening the envelope to see what he had written inside was electric. As a 47-year-old, the weight and amazement of reading the words I am sorry I failed you as a father was mind-blowing.

I sat staring at the letter. Do I answer it? What would I say? The last time we had spoken, I wasn’t even calling him Dad, just Peter. Peter was abusive. Peter was abrasive. Peter was a jerk. Peter was my father.

I wrote back, explaining that I was open to the idea of speaking, but that I needed time to adjust to my new life and then I would contact him. I had just moved across the country after a divorce, and the grief I was experiencing was just about all I could handle.

The idea of speaking to my father after all that time was more than I could deal with, but after six months I decided I was ready. I called one Sunday as I walked my dog, Karma, and was surprised at how much I liked hearing his voice. He was gracious, blunt and full of gratitude for me calling.

How could I resist when he said, “Come up and see us. I want to give you the chance to say anything you need to me. I want to apologize to you in person. Please come!” So I packed up the car and Karma, and headed to Colorado. The long drive up gave me a lot of time to reflect on the monster I had lived with.

He was an air traffic controller by profession, and worked odd hours. When he was at the house, I learned to disappear because he was either angry or distant. A real taskmaster, I was given challenging chores at a very young age. I was expected to help, because the message he sent was that I was a burden.

Because of his shift work, he slept sometimes during the day, and when he did, we had to be extremely quiet. One peep and he would whip us with a belt. The belt was never far from my mind. Any small infraction of the rules and the belt would come out. The worst part of the beatings was that I had to go and get the belt myself.

The long walk from the living room to his closet to select the belt was the worst torture. Standing in the closet, looking at them, I would try and gauge the width of the belt in relation to how bad it was going to hurt. Before he struck me, he would say, “This is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you.”

I wasn’t even allowed to be the one in pain; he was given that honor. As the years progressed, I started to panic at the thought of him even coming home. I stayed outside most of the time. Avoiding him at dinner was unacceptable.

The table had to be set perfectly, and if a water glass was missing or a fork out of place, he would explode in a rage. Every drop of food had to be eaten or we could not leave the table. I would sit at the table sometimes till late into the night. It took me well into my twenties to learn to leave a speck of food on my plate.

Over the years, when questioned as to why I did not speak to my father, I would always tell the puppy story. When I was around two or three, we were driving my grandfather home from the hospital with a puppy in the car. My father kept saying, “Keep the puppy in the back, it is bothering Papa.”

My brothers and I would try, but the puppy kept sneaking around the seat till finally my father said “That’s it!” and pulled the car over. He yanked the puppy out of the car by the scruff of its neck and put it in the trunk. It yelped for a while, but once quiet we pulled the car over again. We all got out to see the dead dog.

We put it in a box on a little creek and watched it float away. I internalized that gruesome act because I saw his message as, “Do what I say or I’ll throw you in the trunk.” I was petrified of the man. Once my mother finally had the guts to divorce him, I was eight years old. All of us started working to help my mother.

In my teens, he was around some, but you could always tell it was not something he wanted to be doing. The last I had spoken to him was at 24. I had decided that my life was better off without him. It was. As I pulled into the gravel driveway, I saw people on the porch.

Tired from the 11-hour drive to his house, I spied him immediately. It was his walk. My father walks with a shift in his gait that comes from his hips in a jerky way because of a motorcycle accident 30 years ago.

The elevated shoe he uses works for all intents and purposes, but I also know what his leg looks like underneath the jeans he is wearing. Scarred and freakish, his leg looks like a shark has mangled it.

I may not have seen that walk in 25 years, but the visual image of him moving across the porch, down the stairs and towards my approaching car, was comforting. I had spent the last 11 hours wondering how I would feel at this very moment.

All those questions disappeared and I pulled forward, anxiously anticipating hearing his voice again. I stopped, put the car in park, and opened the car door. “Hello, Stephanie,” my father said, “welcome to Colorado.” I moved closer and hugged him. I looked over his shoulder and saw the smiling face of my stepmother, Sarabeth.

She has a very distinct giggle and slight squeal when she is happy. Her Texas drawl came through clearly as she said, “Come on up on the porch, darlin’, and have a drink.” I am not nervous at all, but the immensity of the moment was there. The weight of the moment was there big time.

The surprise is that I felt like I was home — like very little time had passed. The next four days were spent saying everything we needed to say to each other. I said my fill. He said his. We made up. It was all that the little girl who still lives in me could hope for.

Although he had Stage III cancer, he seemed optimistic and never mentioned being sick unless I brought it up. Straightforward as all got out, he and I discussed everything and anything. I like that about him. I missed that about him.

I never really understood wish-washy behavior in people, and I must have learned to appreciate bluntness from him. Since re-connecting with my father, family and friends have asked me what it was like. How do I describe someone I really am just getting to know?

Without speaking to him for the last quarter century, I am just forming an opinion. I’ve learned that he was right when he used to say we were just alike. I used to hate that, but now I am making peace with that idea.

I walked away a long time ago, blaming him for my bad qualities, like his, yet never really giving him credit for my good qualities that were similar to his. He and I both have a wicked sense of humor, a strong work ethic, a strong clear voice, fearlessness and strength. I needed all those qualities in my last year of change.

I drew upon them again and again. I feel a little less alone now that I have welcomed him back in to my life. Cancer and time had softened him. Still intense, yet a newfound sense of peace had really changed his expression. Grey hair could explain the physical outward appearance looking softer, but it was more than that.

The black eyes remained the same, but the anger in them was gone. A once-full head of dark brown hair was now gone too. Sparse tufts of grey covered his crown now. The real beauty about this tale is that this new relationship has nothing to do with appearance. It is all about substance, connection and making up for lost time.

My father called me recently to go over his will. I think he is tired of the fight or maybe he has received news that the treatments are not going well. He was serious on the phone, and I told him that I would be there for Sarabeth because I now understand what it is like to lose someone.

He said it was the greatest gift I could give him. I want more time now. Time to get to know this man, my father.

*****

The above was written in 2010. Fast-forward five years.

*****

Because of my re-connection with my father, I feel liberated, informed and consciously aware of how short our time on the planet is. Was it a waste to lose those years? No. It is what it is. What I learned, though, is that people do have the capacity to forgive and move forward.

Do I still hold him accountable for his actions when we were living together many years ago? Yes. Do I blame him at all for anything bad in my life? No. Am I angry at times that I had parents who clearly were either not prepared to be parents or didn’t want to? Yes, but I continue to work on that.

I can clearly point to a feeling of heightened emotional intelligence for having the courage to rebuild a relationship with my father. I do love him, all of him. Do I still see and feel the angry person of his youth? At times, yes. Do I love him any less for it? No. My conversations with my father have been honest and real.

He is frank and open, a quality I admire. He told me he knew when I was eight that he needed help, needed to work on himself, and didn’t have the courage to do so. That is awareness. At eight, even if I had known that, I still wouldn’t have understood that.

I’ve learned from my father that I am not going to try and convince anyone… of anything. If asked, I will openly share what I know of trauma and abuse and my story, but I am who I am. He is who he is. We, like all humans, are flawed. We, though, know it.

After being treated for PTSD at 47, he tells me he is proud of me for having the courage to look at myself, work on myself and grow. Although he won’t even consider an anger management class, like his friends have told him he still would benefit greatly from, I am also extremely proud of him.

I enjoy riding ATVs with him in Colorado. I love being outdoors with him. I love doing odd jobs around the house with him. I love trying to make him laugh. He’s been given a year to live, so I know my time with him is limited… but it always was. That’s just the way it is. It’s okay. We have no regrets. We chose love.

***

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Stephanie Spence
Coronado, California-based screenwriter Stephanie Spence is the former publisher of the award-winning monthly wellness lifestyle magazine in Pennsylvania, Health & Fitness. Her publishing company, Spence Communications, Inc., has published numerous magazines and produced a short documentary film. Stephanie has worked in TV, films and radio and is currently in the Advanced UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting. This mother of two spends her time practicing Yoga, writing and traveling. You could contact her via her blog or via Twitter.