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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

My Father At 100

I woke up this morning and, shortly thereafter, was startled to another awakening that today, my father would have been 100 years old.

He has been on my heart all day. And, as I have done on his birthday for several years now, I rejoiced to think of him in heaven, singing the song he sang to each one of his children when we were babies and teething, or frightened in our beds when there was a thunder and lightning storm, or we had had a difficult day in school or on the playground.

"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine," he would sing, and by the end of the tune, we just knew that, no matter what, everything was going to be okay. 

And then, there were times when it seemed that he seemed so intent on making our home, our world, so chaotic and violent that nothing would ever be okay, ever again. 

There was a time when I rejoiced that I would not see him after I died because I was convinced he would not be in heaven.

I know. That makes me sound like a terrible person. There's a reason for that.

Daddy was an alcoholic. When he drank, he could be dark and moody and rumbling, like a volcano before eruption. During those times, we kids stayed in our room, being very, very quiet, because when he exploded, it was ugly. 

He could be verbally abusive or physically violent - sometimes both.
It took me many years to forgive my father for his temper and his alcoholism. That came about only after I had spent some time hanging around with alcoholics in the AA meeting I used to sponsor when I was Chaplain at University of Lowell in Lowell, MA.
Hearing the stories of the folks who came to those meetings peaked my curiosity about my father's story. Their story - and his story - were healing and transformative. 
My father was one of the middle of five children born to two Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. My grandfather was a farmer and a fisherman who someone managed to save up enough money to by a piece of land where he built a home for his family and started a farm with a vegetable garden, fruit trees and farm animals. 

This not only fed his family but also provided an income for his family. They were poor, but they managed and, as my father always said, "We never went hungry."

And then, necessity being what it was, my grandfather pulled his children out of school after the 6th grade in order to work on the farm and in the factories of the mill towns of Northern New England.

My father's mother died when he was 9 years old and his father re-married within a year of her death. 

My father's narrative was that the woman was a "spinster" whose father wanted her out of his house, so a deal was made. She was, my father said, "a very sour woman" and was "mean" to the children.

The Army provided an escape from all of that, and my father enlisted shortly after the outbreak of WWII where he served in the Pacific Front. We didn't have the understanding or the language for it then, but I'm convinced my father suffered from PTSD after his experiences in the war. 

He kept a box in the basement which contained his uniform and his Purple Heart along with the helmet of a Japanese soldier - one of the many he shot and killed - which had the picture of the soldier, his wife and child tucked inside the helmet.  

Sometimes, he would take out his "War Box". I would often find him holding the helmet and staring at the picture. He was so lost in thought he never even knew I was standing there. 

Not longer after one of those moments, he would have one of his "bad dreams". He would yell and holler out as he relived something that happened to him in the war. 

And then, he would SCREAM. Oh, God! How he would SCREAM. 

He would wake up the entire household with his screaming. We kids would be downstairs, outside my parents bedroom, crying, "Daddy, Daddy, what's wrong? Daddy, are you okay?" 

And, my mother would try to soothe him and he would start crying and then we would cry with him and he would tell us to go back to bed and that he was okay. And then he would take us up to our bedrooms and he would sing, "You are my sunshine".

I never really knew if he was singing it to calm us or himself. Maybe both.

And then, he would sit at the kitchen table, he and his favorite coffee cup and his old buddy Jack Daniels. We would wake up in the morning and find him asleep (passed out) at the table, the bottle of whiskey almost empty.  

My mother would be in the kitchen, shushing us kids as she readied the Faberware coffee pot, and took out the Melmac "every day" dishware for us to set the table while she fixed breakfast. 

He soon took to drinking at night, a way to calm the beast that lived in his brain, no doubt. He used to say it helped him to "calm his nerves" so he could "find sleep". 

Yes, that's exactly what he said: "find sleep". Even at a young age, that always struck me. 

My teen years were volatile - probably no more volatile than any other teenager, especially in the late 60s, early 70s. My father's alcoholism was in full bloom and with it his temper and abuse and violence.  

My mother, not fully understanding and without any support or help from anywhere - her family, her friends, her church, her physician - fell into all the enabling behaviors we now call "dysfunction".

I found solace anywhere but at home. I spent so many hours at the library, the staff there put me to work. I didn't mind and they seemed to understand. 

It was in that library that I learned the origins of the word "dysfunction". It means "painful functioning". I didn't fully understand what that meant, but I did understand that it was painful to function in my family. 

What I didn't know - and wouldn't know until much, much later - that the origin of that painful behavior was unaddressed and unattended pain. It was the pain my father was trying to anesthetize but no amount of alcohol could control or contain or cure.     

Slowly, slowly, slowly, as I grew up and matured emotionally and spiritually, I began to hear my father's story in a new way. As I listened to the stories of alcoholics in the AA group I sponsored as a Chaplain at ULowell, I heard the deep regret, the sincere need and genuine desire to make amends, which was often experienced by the affected family member or friend as "too little too late". 

Slowly, slowly, slowly, I began to take to heart the lessons I learned in ACoA groups. I learned that I was the "hero" in the family system.  I used to say the ACOA "Three C's" mantra repeatedly, "I didn't cause it. I can't control it. I can't cure it."    

It all helped to help me be able to forgive my father. 

At the end of his life, Daddy suffered from "senile dementia". A week before he died, I went to visit him in the Extended Care Facility where he was recovering after a long stay in the hospital with COPD. He would have small windows of time when he was clear and lucid. I tried to take advantage of those times to tell him that I loved him. He would look at me and smile. 

He was feeling restless so I got him up so we could walk down the hall. He seemed anxious but he was having a moment of clarity, so I tried one last time to bring closure to our relationship.

I said, "Daddy, I want you to know that I forgive you."

He stopped and turned around to look at me. A warm smile came over his face, a smile I suddenly realized I hadn't seen in years. "You do?" he asked, with just a note of amusement in his voice. 

"Yes, Daddy. I do. I forgive you."

My father smiled, looked me straight in the eye and said, "Well, good. Because I forgive you, too."

And then, it washed over me like baptismal water. Indeed He may have needed forgiveness, but so, in fact, did I. I needed forgiveness for the ignorance and insensitivity which were at the root of my hardness of heart. I needed forgiveness for the myriad ways that children hurt their parents, intentionally and unintentionally. 

My father started walking ahead of me again. The anxiety had returned. 

I called out to him, "I love you, Daddy," The desperation I heard in my voice startled me.

My father turned around and said, "And, I love you, too."

And then he turned and started walking again, driven by some unknown, unseen force that propelled him forward. I felt helpless. Not knowing what to do to help him, to ease his distress, I found myself singing to him:
"You are my sunshine, 
My only sunshine."
My father stopped, turned around and smiled. He walked back to me as together we sang, 
"You make me happy
When skies are gray
You'll never know, dear
How much I love you.
Please don't take my sunshine away."
We sang that song over and over again, up and down the hall, until he tired and got back into his bed. He hummed that song to himself as he finally fell back to sleep. 

Today, my father would have turned 100 years old. I rejoice to know that he's in heaven. I think of him singing his favorite song to the angels. 

And, that they are singing it with him.   

And, I rejoice to sing it with him while I am here on earth, until we can sing it together again in heaven where no one will be able to take our sunshine away.