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They say time heals all wounds. Not only is that a terrible cliche, it is untrue. Some wounds are so gaping that although time may lessen them, they never completely close.
My father was what one would called a functional alcoholic. He could hold down a job, he was well liked in the community, he took us on vacation, he cooked for us. On paper, he was a good father but even from an early age, I recognized that he had demons. I realized not all fathers hid their drinking and lied when questioned about it. I realized not all fathers crashed their cars into telephone polls and I realized not all fathers "had to go away for awhile" to get better. My father was different and that difference hurt our family.
A memory: I am no more than eight-years-old. It is a Saturday afternoon and we are in our sunny kitchen. My mother is making lunch. My father tells her he is taking me out for the afternoon. Right away, I can sense something is wrong. Maybe it is something in his voice, I don't know. I think my mother can sense it too but she doesn't say anything. He is her husband. He is my father. I don't know how to voice my unease and she lets us go.
As soon as we get into the car, I know he has been drinking. He drives erratically, speeding down hills, all the while telling me he can go 100 miles an hour and not lose control of the wheel. I am terrified. I am sure we are going to crash at any moment and I wish fervently for a police officer to spot us and pull us over. It doesn't happen.
We arrive at our destination, the horse races. My father drinks at the bar there until his behavior becomes disruptive and he is asked to leave. He buys me food I don't want, ignoring my requests to go home. We go to a bowling alley. He leaves me to drink, sends me into the bathroom with a woman I don't know. The night seems to go on and on and I stop pleading to go home. It falls on deaf ears and my father tells me I'm being a baby, he's taking me out to have fun and I'm being ungrateful.
We leave and I'm certain we're going to get in a terrible car accident. I keep imagining my death, the moment of impact. I am too scared to cry, too scared to move a muscle. Finally, in a true miracle, we get to our house unscathed. My mother meets us at the door, sick with worry while my father passes out.
It is weeks before I am able to speak to anyone about it.
A memory: I am 18-years-old. I am on vacation alone for the first time in my life. It is Father's Day. I call from my hotel room, hands trembling while I dial our number at home. My father picks up on the second ring. We make uncomfortable small talk, I end the call with wishes for a good holiday. I don't know why but I tell him I love him. It takes us both aback, but him especially. We don't get along. Years of physical and mental abuse from his illness have taken its toll on our relationship and truthfully, I resent him much of the time. But today, I tell him I love him and he tells me he loves me too, though he can't understand my reason for saying so.
He dies less than a month later.
Grief is complicated in and of itself. Grief is compounded and intensified with a complicated relationship. The loss was debilitating. My body betrayed itself with daily panic attacks, but inside I was numb. Everyone around me thought I was mourning the death of my father because I loved him. I was mourning, that much was true, but I wasn't sure if I loved him, I wasn't sure I could love him after what he had put me through and now I would never know if there would have been the possibility of mending our relationship.
It took me quite some time after his death to admit to myself I was angry. With the help of a compassionate therapist, I realized I was furious with him, not only for the trauma I'd suffered but also because he had died. Giving myself allowance to be angry and to rage at him for taking a good portion of my childhood away was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to face. I had always felt guilty for my fury, not being able to speak about it to my mother or sister. They couldn't understand why it was nearly impossible for me to separate him from his disease. I had borne the brunt of his ire and abuse for years and the expectation I had to grieve his death without any of the residual anger I still held, was heartbreaking.
Separating forgiveness from moving on is a task that can seem Herculean for most of us. For many years, I thought moving on meant forgiving my father, something I wasn't ready to do. Therapy helped me to realize that holding on to resentment and sadness and blame was eating away at me. Gradually, I began to acknowledge that his disease had made him into someone who was difficult to love and in turn, made it difficult for him to love me. It wasn't the same as forgiving him and it wasn't the same as forgetting the abuse. But accepting and understanding that he was sick, accepting that he had problems loving us because he had no love for himself, was the first tiny step toward healing. A part of me will always be that eight-year-old girl, terrified and alone, but I am also stronger than I ever thought I could be. I am able to personally grasp the hold addiction has on a person and use this wisdom to display compassion towards others. I am able to forgive a little more freely and often and to apply this forgiveness to myself.
Time does not heal all wounds but it helps ease the ache. It helps the heart to mend, it allows for some of the pain to fade. And in its place, a resolve to rise above the brokenness.
And that is more than enough for now.