Forgiveness at Christmas
A confidante of my father told me at his funeral that, for some ten years, my father had been confused by his own behavior and was ashamed and deeply embarassed by his actions and reactions to others. My father had felt out of control and quite scared. My father did not win his battle with mental illness, nor did he ever discuss it with me.
A childhood of physical and emotional abuse coupled with a chemical imbalance became the bedrock of his behavior. His drive, focus on detail and deep desire to lavishly provide for his family enabled him to become quite successful in the oil industry. I cannot remember any request I made being turned down by my father. I enjoyed the finest of everything...food, clothes, toys and trips. He was an endless, constant and excellent provider.
Growing up, I was never told of my father's problems. I had no one to compare his behavior to. He was my father, he must be doing and saying what fathers do, yet I was always uncomfortable around him after I reached the age of thirteen or fourteen, after my parents' divorce, after he began to take me on long drives to defend himself against whatever stories my mother must be telling me about him. Our infrequent conversations soon degenerated into lectures. In retrospect, it seems he was trying to cram in all of life's lessons into those drives and long afternoons spent in coffee shops. It was as if he realized he had forgotten to do this for me. His lectures were delivered with the urgency and intensity of a drowning man gasping for his last breath.
Somewhere in my college days, my father began to slow down, he became depressed and lethargic. Each time I came home from college, I would be sent by my mother (already his ex-wife) or my sisters to "go find your father and see if he is alright, no one has seen or heard from him in days." I recall once breaking through his kitchen window, climbing over his sink and finding him in a coma-like state, resting in a sub-freezing tomb of an apartment and fearing him dead.
Eventually, my father became an embarrassment and an inconvenience. Meeting the parents of my college friends, I soon became aware that something was not right with my father. You must understand, my father's decay was so gradual, so imperceptible in its shifts, that each odd thing he did just seemed consistent.
Each Christmas was divided between mornings at my mother's home, where I lived, and evenings at my father's apartment. My father seemed able to get it together for Christmas. His mental state ebbed and flowed and for many years, he had enough money coming in from oil-run checks to keep him housed, clothed and barely functional in his industry. Still, his condition was not discussed. Of the many lessons I learned from my father's tribulations, the first was: if you're crazy and have money, then you're considered eccentric; if you're crazy and poor, you're just a problem.
Like two statistics climbing a chart, when my father reached an obvious point of mental imbalance, I had climbed to a high point with my own imbalance. A speed addiction and alcoholism had numbed me to a point of denial and lack of concern for anyone but myself. I decided to move to NYC...so long family, so long friends! Finally, a physical distance from my father and much of my pain.
When I was at the peak of my own abuse, my father began his trouble with the police...numerous car accidents, petty thefts and trips to psychological care institutions.
Those years are an emotional fog to me but what I do remember were the Christmases I spent with my mother and sisters, and only with them. At some point, my father had begun to be put away with more frequency and for longer durations. Some Christmases he spent with his sisters and their children; we'd receive a phone call or a card.
My father's behavior towards my sisters and mother became violent and abusive, to the point where my slept with a gun under her pillow. His threats became worse and worse but he never threatened me.
In 1987, I began to pull myself out of my fog. I was done with my drinks and alcohol, began to slowly clear up and receive occasional glimpses of clarity about my father and his disease (manic depression and schizophrenia) and my disease of alcoholism. It seems they robbed us of many years, like someone might steal your memories or inheritance. A theft had occurred, a vague, confusing loss of time and love and opportunities for support and guidance.
When I put down my addictions, I didn't suddenly have total insight or understanding of the situation. A few sober Christmases went by before I could actually sit with my father in a car on a long drive or in a coffee shop and just listen or share what I thought.
Eventually, my father was permanently institutionalized. There would be no getting out. A steady diet of drugs and old records, of nurses and doctors, of cards and poinsettias.
I kept writing my father. I could no longer speak to him on the phone or see him. It had becme too painful. He got visits from his sister and nephews; his daughters would drive to his V.A. hospital in Waco, Texas. Sometimes he'd see them, sometimes he would refuse their visits. Eventually none of us could see him.
Last Christmas, I finally felt I could see my father. I was terrified to walk into that psych. ward. Five years had gone by since I had seen my father. I couldn't stand another Christmas, avoiding him or my pain. I'd suffered tremendous guilt about not being able to be with him for so many years, guilt fr not seeing him at Christmas, guilt for not trying to save him, guilt for abandoning him at his lowest point.
I also just missed my father. I remembered moments of great kindness and love, support and discipline. Funny how you can long for something like discipline; as a small child, I saw my father happy, proud, angry, embarrassed, joyous, sad, humbled and honored. I truly longed for this man. I didn't get enough of him.
We went to Waco just after Christmas. Outside the hospital, I had to pause. I was afraid I might vomit from fear. My legs were weak and I felt a deep exhaustion. It flashes through my mind that my reaction is some sort of intuitive warning, that if I enter the hospital it may blow up. I have never felt such fear, before or since.
Nonetheless, we went inside. My thoughts were racing, I felt panicky and was having a great deal of trouble breathing. As we walked down the halls, it struck me that each old man shuffling by in his slippers could be my father. Each turn down a new corridor might land me in his lap. It felt like a dream, like I was walking through four feet of water or that gravity's pull had tripled.
The nurse stopped us under a sign reading Intensive Care. I was the last person, after my sisters, their husbands and children, to enter the room. When I saw my father, I fell back into an adjoining room.
I was crying into my hands and standing over another gentleman who was deep asleep and completely unaware I was there. My sister Claudia raced in and caught me and held me while I cried.
Suddenly, I shut down. I felt nothing. I was completely calm and I walked back into the I.C. room where my father lay. The five years had aged him fifteen years, his hair, while no greyer, was thinner. He was much skinnier and paler.
He had to be restrained with straps due to these involuntary convulsions, twitches and spasms he had developed. He could no longer form sentences but could answer simple questions like "Do you know who these people are?"
The nurse moved us to another room while the orderlies bathed my father and changed his linens. My family sat in relative silence while we waited except for some awkward comments on the state of the hospital's facilities.
Soon, our father was wheeled in. I sat closest to him and massaged his neck and arms, which would often fly out of my hands. I silently became angry with my family, as they tossed off meaningless small talk along the lines of "How're the Cowboys doing?" or "Did you enjoy the food, Ben?" I could only look in his eyes and stare silently.
In that moment of silence, when everyone else's chatter sounded like an air conditioner in the background, I realized there was nothing I could have done to save him or protect him. I was finally clear enough to enough to see the power of his disease, and my powerlessness to stop, change or cure it. I forgave myself, I forgave him for being sick, for being absent and for every transgression I had held him responsible for.
I asked for a few minutes alone with him and there, in an ugly orange waiting room by the service elevators, I told him I regretted the time we'd missed, that I loved him and I knew he loved me. I told him I'd become a success, that he could be proud of me, that I knew how many people he'd helped and that they all wished him well. My father had been the first president of the YMCA in my home town. He had belonged to many service organizations, was a deacon in the church; he even sent several children through college anonymously. He had done many people great service.
My father died two months later. His death was painful yet forgiving. He was finally released from the earthbound body which, for him, had been a chemical prison of confusion and misunderstanding, pain and isolation. That was my Christmas of forgiveness, the greatest gift I've ever received.
I speak to my father regularly now through prayer, more than I think I ever spoke to him when he was alive. I wear his ring, cry for him often, sing and write for him, too. He never heard me sing professionally. Now I believe he hears more than anyone else, even the practicing.
I look forward to this Christmas, because I no longer have to feel the conflict of not being with my father. Actually, I'll have my mother and father in the same room again on Christmas, they'll just be on different planes.
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