Stone of stumbling and rock of offense (wordweaverlynn) wrote,
Stone of stumbling and rock of offense

Not Quite Forgiveness

Someone recently asked me how I could have been kind to my abusive father in his final illness. It’s a long story, and not simple.

This is all written at arm’s length. It’s the only way I can talk about it right now. Nevertheless, it’s triggering for sexual, emotional, and physical violence.

Background reading for those unfamiliar with my life story. And more.

My parents divorced—at long last—in late1974, when I was 15. Daddy refused to move out during the divorce. He slept on the couch in the living room, his nightstick and semi-automatic always at his side, porn books scattered around and under the couch. My mother worked 3 to 11 at a state mental hospital 45 minutes away. We kids were home all evening with him, when he was there. It was my job to cook him dinner.

I’d loathed him all my life with a deep, deadly hatred; I spent my earliest years fantasizing murder. No. Planning it. It wasn’t just me; my mother would discuss killing him with my older sister and me. The message was crystal-clear: it was my job to save everyone from his violence, and the only way to do that was murder. During the bad days of late 1973 or early 1974, I did actually pick up a knife to kill him. I chickened out.

When my father was finally gone, we rarely saw him, and I did my best not to speak to him. Once in 1976 he came to take us to visit my older sister and her baby and husband. I’m not sure he noticed that I didn’t speak to him directly other than to say hello. A few years later, I went to my youngest sister’s wedding, but I gave him the cut direct. His response was to ask my mother, “What’s wrong with Lynn?” God only knows what she told him. I told my family never to give him my address, but I still woke from blood-soaked nightmares in which he had hunted all my family down and killed them, and was coming for me. All those years, whenever I heard of a mass murder, someone spraying a restaurant or workplace with gunfire, I wondered if he were the killer.

When I got married in 1985, I refused to invite him or even inform him of the event. I certainly had no intention of letting him walk me down the aisle or give me away. I’d spent some time in therapy already (that was my 21st birthday gift to myself), and over the following years I spent much more time working to unravel the web of terror, confusion, and self-loathing.

About five years after my marriage, my aunt in Long Island had a family reunion, to which she invited her brother—my father. It was the same day as my father-in-law’s birthday party, just a few miles away. So my husband and I went for an hour or so. To see my sisters, my aunts, my cousins. I still wouldn’t speak to my father, but my husband did. And he reported, “He’s nothing like you said. He’s just a middle-aged asshole.”

Later—I’m hazy on dates here—there was a family gathering for my paternal grandfather, who was in his 90s and frail. And living with my father and his wife. I wanted to see Grandpa, so I made preparations to see my father and even speak to him. The preparations included buying a hat and a lovely print scarf to trim it; afterward I realized how protective a hat could be, how much space and shelter it gave me. Still, I avoided him as much as possible. I believe my Uncle David was videotaping the party; the encounter between me and my father must have been hilarious to watch, for I kept backing up and he kept pursuing me.

None of these brief meetings led to any contact between times. The few minutes of breathing the same air he did, of talking with him, left me spent, despairing, suicidal for months afterward, and they gave me plenty of things to discuss in therapy. One of the things I realized was that he still had far too much power over me. I needed to see him as just another asshole, not as the preternaturally powerful, murderous monster he had been in my earliest childhood. That was why I went to those reunions—not from any desire to make friends with him, but wanting to draw his fangs.

I was working in therapy on overcoming my intransigence, my sense that if I compromised at all I would betray myself. I was also working on accepting power—on redefining myself as someone who was allowed to have and use power, instead of as someone who was a victim or a perpetual underdog shaking my fist in the face of overwhelming odds. I’d believed that having any power would make me a monster, yet I needed to own both the power and the possibility that I could indeed cause damage—and that if I did hurt someone else, I could be forgiven. I needed to exchange brittleness for flexibility, rigid definitions for both freedom and responsibility. This required seeing myself as others saw me, facing the fact that I wasn’t always in the right—getting some perspective on myself and other people. I was afraid, deep down, that if I was ever wrong, it meant that the abuse had been deserved. And I still lived in terror of my father; part of me was still 2 or 3, and facing him, an adult man, in unequal combat.

During that spell of therapy, I decided to confront my father. I called him on the phone and taxed him with some of what he had done. (I never talked about the molestation.) At first he denied and made light of it. Then he cried and apologized. There was no reason for it he could give me. His apology didn’t mean much to me, but the acknowledgment had value. He admitted that he had, in fact, deliberately persecuted me, had used me as an emotional and sometimes physical punching bag. I wasn’t twisting the facts. This was real.

Afterward I felt empty and sad. I’d gathered my courage to confront him, but the phone call was a mockery. That pitiable creature in Chambersburg was only a ghost of the father/monster.

The raging, violent, scornful bastard was still alive, though. He was in me. He didn’t exist anywhere else, not now. That’s where I’d have to confront and defeat him.

By then I was older than he’d been when he sexually abused me, about the same age as when he belittled and mocked and beat me. I kept looking at little children with terrible shock: what kind of adult could work to destroy a small child, or treat one as a reasonable adversary? Someone very angry. Someone very afraid.

A few years passed. My father-in-law and both grandfathers died in the space of a year. (I skipped my paternal grandfather’s funeral, not being in any shape at the time to deal with my father again.) I was embracing my own power and learning to reclaim my Shadow. That meant reclaiming a great deal of strength, but it also meant coming to grips with my own rage, my own ability to be cruel in nonconsensual ways, my own irresponsibilities. The ways I was like him, in fact.

I was also online, and I became friends with a woman whose abusive father had recently died. She’d been unable to come to any kind of reconciliation, and it gnawed at her. I didn’t and don’t believe that deathbed reconciliation is always wise or possible. But when I heard he was in poor shape, I sent him my own rosary.

This was a gesture to the Catholic faith in which he’d grown up, and which his Baptist daughters had denied and disrespected. I had a rosary because by then, I was much more religiously tolerant, and I prayed it sometimes.

In late January 1997 the news came: pancreatic cancer, which usually kills quickly. (It took him nearly two years to die.) I was sick myself then with gall bladder trouble, but I went to see him. I arranged a block of rooms at a motel for everyone at a special rate. (I was good at such things. In those days I was the family resource.)

That was the last good weekend. Most of us were there, but Diane wasn’t. Oh God, if I could change one thing in my life, we would have called her that night. My younger sister and her husband had just been called to a new ministry. A few days later, my husband got a job near where I grew up, doing what he’d always said he wanted to do; we would be selling the house where we’d lived eight and a half years and moving north.

A week after we saw my father, a Saturday morning, my big sister called. She sounded terrible. I knew someone was dead. “Is it Daddy?”

“No. Diane.” Her daughter, my niece—just 22, and engaged to be married to a young minister. We buried her in her wedding dress, and her fiance preached the funeral sermon.

Within days after the funeral I was in the hospital getting my gall bladder out.

All this may seem extraneous, but it’s not. I lost so much, so fast, and was so sick that I wasn’t entirely myself. It took me eight or nine months even to cry for Diane.

At that time—in addition to grief and recovering from surgery and selling a house and buying a house—I was also writing a book about my mother-in-law’s life in Poland before and during World War II. Horrible work that gave me nightmares, a book that my husband expected would free him from ever having to work again, make his mother rich and famous, and force her to love him.

Everything around and within me was in ruins. My marriage was beginning to be that way too. Billy couldn’t understand what he called my coldness about Diane’s death. When I began to grieve, he told me my grieving would keep her spirit trapped on earth. He was feeling abandoned, lost, and angry because I had so little to give him emotionally. At the same time, he was eagerly pushing me into outside relationships—something he had long wanted and that we’d decided we’d do if he ever got this new job. It was one of the major reasons he wanted the job; only getting away from the defense establishment, he believed, would give him that freedom.

And I felt guilty because I’d always wanted my father to die, and he was dying. Because I couldn’t take care of my husband as I always had. Because so many ordinary things—almost everything from remembering that I’d started to heat water for tea, to doing our taxes—were beyond me now. Yet I arranged more motel rooms and a schedule, and gathered the extended family for my father’s pre-death funeral. The book was finished a few days before. I printed a copy and gave it to my father. He read and admired it, but missed the import of his name in the Acknowledgments (“my father, who first taught me about the Nazis”).

After that the darkness. It took me years to write again—for a long time I couldn’t even write a check. I still have never finished a book since. That book, and the deaths, and everything, broke something in me that wasn’t all that sturdy to begin with. Writing carried too much emotional weight.

I grasped at anything that could help me. Plenty of my tactics were ultimately destructive and stupid and even cruel to myself and others. (Like falling in love with C, who was grieving the loss of a teenage son. Disaster.) Others worked better. Therapy (with my current therapist). Antidepressants. Actually building friendships outside the tight enclosed world of my marriage. Falling in love with Michele. Getting a tiny black kitten I named Gabriel.

Nevertheless, I came very close to suicide. I was not functioning, and it seemed the world would be considerably better off if I were gone. This was not despair. Despair I can fight. This was a cold, hard judgment that I did not deserve to live. Michele, bless her, let me see myself in a different light. I might be salvageable after all.

The last few months of my father’s life were dreadful. He was dying by millimeters but he couldn’t let go. He had a permanent feeding line in. I wanted to go down to where he lived and unplug the machines to give him release. I wanted to drive a stake through his heart; he was like Dracula, he just would not die without a stake and garlic and maybe a silver bullet. I wanted to chop him up with an axe for everything he’d done to me.

Finally he died.

If, during that time, I was kind to my father, visited him, prayed for him, it was as much for my own sake as for his. Because I knew by then I was truly a monster, just like my father, and that if I couldn’t forgive him I could never hope for forgiveness.

I wish this was a prettier story. I wish it sounded uplifting. I’ve skipped a lot of rotten things I did, as well as an equal number my husband did to me. But this is the truth, God help me.

From a dozen years on, things seem somewhat different. But the core meaning for me is still that you never know what damage you’re doing. My father, acting from rage and madness and maybe being a sociopath, did disproportionate amounts of damage. Anybody who terrorizes a child leaves a permanent mark. He couldn’t see the difference between adults and children, I think. Couldn’t see his own relative size and strength, his position of power, and he reacted to me as though I were an adult threatening his life and self-respect. My mother, too, acted as though I were an adult who could defend her, could even slay the monster she had married.

And then, trying to assuage my grief and anger and despair and self-loathing, I did collateral damage to my husband and to myself. Needing me to make the world safe for him—an impossible task—he damaged me by clawing at me from his own insecurities.

If there’s a neat quick moral lesson here, it’s this: Be gentle with others. Be aware always of the effect you are having on other people. They’re not all-powerful. They may be scared insecure lonely kids inside, too.

I’m still working on being gentle with myself. I was kind to my father. Maybe someday I’ll learn to be kind to me. (As opposed to self-indulgent, which I can usually manage quite well.)

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