My father suffered from alcoholism. As a result, we all suffered. I was three-and-a-half years old when my parents’ divorce was final. My baby sister was still an infant. While some may believe toddlers won’t remember, I assure you, that is a myth.
I may not remember the details of every violent incident that occurred in our home. I may not remember all of the ways the rage was expressed toward my mother and I, but I remember enough to be able to reflect and discern I didn’t feel safe.
After my parents’ divorce, my mother worked hard to undo the experiences we shared. And my father continued his path of sporadic moments of fatherhood. At the age of 10, someone highlighted for me my “situation” with a single-parent was actually abnormal. And, suddenly, my own rage that had been working itself toward the surface—as all rage does—finally found a way out.
For the next 10 years, my anxiety grew, my fears of abandonment and not being enough in the world were overshadowed by the rage. During my healing work of the past six years, I realize now that somewhere in my ten-year-old mind, I equated rage with power. I felt vulnerable and weak and different—I mean, this person said my “situation” was abnormal, and I already felt different than my classmates.
Who needs another thing to make someone on the verge of puberty feel different?
Because I felt vulnerable and afraid and ashamed that my life was so abnormal—internalizing all of the responsibility onto myself, as most children with parents who experience addictions do—I countered with rage.
Nothing was right, good enough, or satisfactory.
Everything in my corner of the world, and from my child’s eye view, was a tragic mess.
I lashed out at friends, I lashed out at my mother, I lashed out at grandparents.
By the time I entered high school, while I was generally pretty quiet, someone later shared with me they felt as though I was a ticking bomb—and no one knew when I would explode.
The last time I saw my father as a child, I was almost twelve years old. My dad promised he would be in-town for my birthday.
I hoped and prayed with my little faith that he would be there for Christmas.
And that meant I was DONE!
At the age of twenty, while I was home for semester break, he called my mother—as he would sometimes do in the winter—wanting a place to stay disguised as an inquiry as to us—at least, I always thought his inquiry was insincere.
When my mother confirmed it was my father on the other end of the phone call, the rage found a new outlet.
And I didn’t feel any better.
When I returned to school that year, I experienced a nightmare of such vivid imagery and emotional feeling, when I awakened, I thought it had happened.
In that moment, I realized the anger and rage I so desperately guarded needed to go.
It was killing me on many levels.
And so began the process of forgiveness.
Many years passed, and my uncle provided an update about where my father was living and how he always asked about me and my sister. I’m sure something was said about my father’s lack of parenting and presence—it usually was—and I’m sure my uncle told me that my father loved me.
Something stirred in my heart and I knew I needed to write to my father and tell him that I’d forgiven him—for all the things he’d ever done, and for all the things he’d never done.
I didn’t realize then that forgiveness is really layered. And abandonment wounds are really quite deep and need tremendous care and patience and great love while they heal.
I sent my father a letter. I told him I had no expectations of a reply—that it wasn’t necessary. I just wanted him to know that I’d forgiven him.
For a time, we wrote one another and began to build a relationship. Chaos ensued for both of us and we didn’t speak again for years.
In 2005, he appeared on my front porch. He was moving back home and I was moving away. I didn’t stay gone very long, and when I returned that summer, he and I began to re-build what we started.
But I wasn’t in a healing or healthy place. And my father wasn’t physically well. He’d reached points of sobriety off and on throughout those years, but soon returned to his chosen escape, and I realized the deep, dark wounds of my childhood re-opened.
I quit taking his calls. I quit returning his voicemails. It was all too painful.
On February 2, 2009, I met my sister at the hospital. My father had fallen the day before. He ruptured his esophagus and they originally decided surgery was required. However, his condition and the cancer had weakened him beyond survival of an operating room. And it was on this day, in the afternoon, that my sister and I learned our father was dying.
We visited as we could over the course of the next 11 days. The last time I saw him alive was February 11, 2009. My mother came with my sister on that visit. And there we all were in this room with our relatives—but the four of us, together.
Years before this moment, my father had told me he still loved my mother. Apparently, he carried a letter she’d written him many years ago. And he would read it as he traveled across the country hopping trains and finding places to stay. We never knew if that call during those long, cold winter months would be the call to inform us he was gone.
And here we were—the four of us—in this room together.
My father was restless and wanted to sit on the side of his bed. I was closest to him and began helping him disentangle the lines connecting his body and machines. He was too weak to sit upright and my mother moved so quickly to the bedside and let him lean against her.
He felt safe. And he fell asleep.
He leaned against her and she rubbed his chest.
And my sister and I were confused at first. We didn’t know what to think or what to say or what to do.
I know I stared at my parents with a shocked look of disbelief on my face.
After my father woke up, and was repositioned in bed, I had to leave for the night. I don’t remember all of the words we spoke to one another.
I wish I did.
I don’t think I realized that would be the last time. Maybe I realized it, but didn’t want to believe it.
The next day, my mother went back to see him on her lunch hour. She stayed with him that night. And at 8:35am, the morning of February 13, 2009, my mother, my uncle (dad’s brother), my cousins, and my aunt were in his room when he drew his last breath.
After he was gone from this world, it hit me.
In that moment, when he was so safe and felt so peace-filled leaning against my mother, I saw the love my parents had for one another. I saw Love conquer pain. I saw Love usher in peace and healing and hope.
In that moment, I had a change of heart. I no longer saw the raging alcoholic man who couldn’t be all I needed him to be.
He was no longer there.
I saw my daddy.
And I loved him.
Jeani is currently discerning the vocational aspect of her calling to ministry. She is actively participating in writing projects related to theology and the practices of faith--seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God that we might love God with all that we are, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. She recently launched a website to share her faith journey. It can be found at www.jeaniricecranford.com.