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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Beyond God the Father

Father's Day always brings up a cascade of difficult memories and emotions for me.

That happens to those of us - men and women - who had/have a father who was/is an alcoholic.

Mother's Day is not much better for me. That's mostly because my mother was an enabler to my father's alcoholism. When my father drank, it was always some one's fault because he was drinking. Someone (usually me, but whichever one of us acted like a normal kid that day) didn't "behave". Someone (definitely me, being the oldest) was not "a good example" for the younger kids.

Over the years, I've learned to understand and appreciate the circumstances of my father's disease -  the cultural influences,  the mores of the time - and the way it infected and affected our entire family system. It's taken a great deal of work, but I've also learned to forgive my parents.

There really was no choice about it. Forgiving my parents, I mean. Well, I suppose there was, but there was only one healthy choice and that was to find forgiveness, even if that meant that there wouldn't be the kind of reconciliation I hoped and longed for.

As they say in 12-Step Programs, holding onto anger is like eating rat poisin and expecting the other person to die. Harboring resentment is like letting that person take up rent-free space in your brain.

It was a long, painful process of healing which took a great deal of intention and well.... yes....I'll say it, courage.  It takes the courage to confront your own demons, grieve the loss of your preconceived notions and change your reality by changing your expectations of yourself and others.

Sometimes, healing came from unexpected places.

I remember being challenged by my Spiritual Director to identify my earliest images of God.  Of course, it was "God the father" in the stained glass windows of the church and pictures in my children's bible story books.

God never looked benevolent to me in these pictures. "He" always looked angry - ready to 'smite' or strike down.  Drunk with power. Not unlike the father I had at home.

Then, my Spiritual Director asked me to identify the earliest sounds of God. We went through the poetic sound of the wind and the the rustle of leaves in the trees.

Then, she asked if I had an early experience of a human sound that was an experience of God.

I tried to think of a time when my father was not angry. Not drunk. When he was kind and gentle. There were those moments, but they were so clouded by painful memories of his violent drunken rages that they were hard to recall.

Did your father read you bedtime stories, my spiritual director asked?

I thought about it. It had been a long, long time. And then, I remembered.

I remembered being young - what? 3? 4? - sharing my father's lap with my younger sister. She was squirming, as little ones are wont to do, but I was cuddled in, snuggled under my father's strong arm. 

My head was on his chest. I was listening to the story he was reading, but I was actually listening to it with my ear against his chest. That made his voice sound ethereal. Not exactly human - not the voice of my father - but otherworldly. An echo coming from another time - another place and another reality - through my father's chest.

It was comforting and disconcerting, all at once.

I remember thinking, "This must be what God sounds like."

Later, I had another realization. My father only had a sixth grade education. His parents pulled him out of school to help with his father's farm. At grade 6, he had already had more education than his own father. He could read and write in English and Portuguese. What more did he need?

My father could read the daily, local newspaper. And, he did. Every morning. As soon as it arrived. I remember learning in school that our local community newspaper - The Fall River Herald News - was written at a sixth grade reading/comprehension level. The Boston Globe and the NY Times, however - at least in those days - were written at a ninth grade reading/comprehension level.

I never saw a copy of either the Boston Globe or the NY Times in our house. My father may have been able to read it, but he wouldn't have been able to comprehend most of what was written.

But, he could read our children's books. Very well. And, he did. Every night. If reading the Fall River Herald News was his morning ritual, reading Winnie the Pooh or Charlotte's Web to his children was his nightly ritual.

It was the one thing he could do for his children. As we got older, he couldn't keep up and let the nightly ritual drop. I remember his sadness when my youngest sister no longer wanted to sit still for story time and we older kids didn't want to have "that baby stuff" read to us when we were perfectly capable of reading My Friend Flicka or Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys to ourselves.

I remember a distinct bitter-sweet air about him when my youngest sister went off to school and started to learn to read on her own. And, I remember his frustration when he couldn't read the books I brought home from the library in Jr. High School. 

When he got frustrated, he drank. And, when he drank, he got violent. And, when he got violent ...... well ....... I learned to hide under my bed with a book and a flashlight and let the author speak to me of wild horses and great adventures and foreign lands.

They never go away completely, but I have tried to let the memories of those painful memories take a back seat to the happier memories of my father reading to me when I was a small child.

I find an odd sort of comfort and solace in the fact that it was my father's voice, and my listening to it through his chest as he read children's stories to me and my siblings that led me to understand something about the nature of God. 

Something that was kind. That was generous. That was dependable. Something that could be found in the midst of the complexities and challenges of the human condition. That had its own nobility.  That was capable of participating in redemption and salvation.

When I think about that, I can move beyond God the father and further into deep gratitude for the gift and mystery of this amazing life.

And, I can say, "Happy Father's Day".


parodie said...

That is beautiful and powerful. Thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, parodie.

Sextant said...

I too had an alcoholic father, so reading your words is painfully familiar. Fortunately he was not a violent drunk. It was my mother who was violent, not with my sister and I but with him. He would come in drunk and she would start screaming at him and sooner or later fists, dishes, or furniture would start flying. Fortunately my father only defended himself from her blows. He wasn't a big man but he was powerful and could have hurt her easily. They were locked in this infinite loop of him getting drunk and she fighting him. Yet in some bizarre way they seemed to love each as well. Neither left the other.

My father died 30 years ago and I have long forgiven him, but my mother has been gone 4 years and with her it is far more complicated. She hated my wife, no mortal woman is good enough for her son. Yet it was my wife that saved me from my father's fate, and my wife that continues to save me from my mother's fate. My mother's nastiness is genetic, it runs in her family, and occasionally my wife has to remind me, don't turn into your mother.

I am working on forgiveness for my mother. Forgiveness is a very odd is probably one of the most selfish things you can do. My mother is no longer hating my wife any where except in my mind. So it is not my mother who continues to hurt is me. Hurt and anger are like carrying concrete blocks, it is a load that you must bear, and it is constantly with you.

We can't control how people will treat us in life, but we can limit, through forgiveness, how much they can hurt us by not becoming agents of hatred working in their behalf. My hurt and anger at my mother is only enabling her to continue to hurt me, beyond the grave, so it is time to forgive her, and maybe in the process forgive myself, because it takes two to tango, had I handled my mother differently perhaps the trajectory of her life after my father died may have been different. Storming out of her home and not speaking to her for months at a time was not the solution, but I could never stand up to my mother. It was far easier to run away from her. My mother's nastiness and my was like a waltz. If I had did this differently, or that differently....It is time to let all that go. I know what I have to do, but yet there is a little mean part of me (I inherited it from my mother) that revels in wallowing in hurt and anger. Like my wife says...don't turn into your mother.

Wonderful post Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for that painfully truthful and deeply moving witness, Sexton.These observances of mothers and fathers days are so much more complex than any one of us cares to admit - or imagine.

The path to forgiveness is a difficult rode to trod, but it is so worth it. I'm still on it and I can tell you that the view is not always what you expect or even want, but it gets better and better.

God bless you on the journey.

Matthew said...

Thanks, also the child of an alcoholic. We worked through our issues a few years before my dad died. I'm glad the last few years were happy memories, not the ones from years before.

Donna said...

As another child of both alcoholic and 'enabler' parents, I found your reflection touching - and strikingly familiar. Similar in tone to the post I did about my father yesterday as well.
And I agree totally - it does take courage to chose forgiveness. What a wonderful gift to give yourself however...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - My "forgiveness story" with my dad is actually quite humorous. He had dementia at the time. Another post for another blog.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


I thing courage is knowing the dangers and walking through them anyway.

Good for you!