He was never meant to grow old. November 15th would have been my dad’s eighty-ninth birthday, but he only made it to sixty-one. I sometimes sit and think about how he only lived eight years older than I am now. Like many of us think about our parents, he seemed old, even when he was my age, Fifty-three, and running towards fifty-four.
My dad started having health problems early on, getting heart surgery when I was in my teens and getting put on kidney dialysis when I was nineteen. Throughout the years gout, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol plagued him. That’s what happens when you smoke, drink, and eat a lot of southern fried foods. I still remember getting a call when I was at Lackland Air Force Base in the midst of my training, and being told his kidneys were failing. It was then that I hung up the phone, looked at my buddy, Luigi, and said, “I’m never going to be like him.”
I have told stories of my dad before. Mostly trying to process and work through what happened. They are now old stories, ones that stay fairly dormant, and sometimes creep into my mind in the early morning hours when insomnia or depression visits. Honestly, he has become a character that I once had in my life. Someone who helped shape the plot of my story early on, but I had to figure out a way to not let him dictate the remainder of my personal novel. The way was through forgiveness. A few years ago, I was able to finally forgive him for the abuse I had to endure and the abuse that I witnessed. As I have stated in past writings, forgiveness was for me. It is powerful to forgive someone who caused you harm because it no longer gives them control. Forgiveness allows you to take back everything: abuse, lack of caring, absent love, and the list goes on. Certainly, trauma is there and it creeps up in various forms now and again, but forgiveness gave me power. To forgive him showed me who I am, the virtues and character I have strived to develop, and it also showed me how strong I am because forgiving someone who tormented me takes an enormous amount of courage and strength. I am a better man than my dad ever was. This I can say with confidence. As a child, I thought he was the toughest, strongest man in the world, but I am much stronger than he ever was, for certain physically and mentally, but more important, emotionally.
I have also told the story about how my mother was hallucinating in Hospice this past August, literally on her deathbed, the morphine taking hold, and she brutally killed him. These are probably hard stories for people to read, and they are difficult to write, but I have always liked stories that were real and never held back. Give me truth over masking the realities of life. One thing I wished for my mom was that she would have forgiven my dad. I wish she could have realized, like I did, that if she hung onto her anger it would tear her up. It’s like I tell my students, “When you let someone make you carry and hold onto anger, they control you.” Unfortunately, my dad and my grandma controlled so many of my mom’s thoughts. She took them with her to her deathbed and even tried to process and reconcile her anger and remorse for them until she could not speak anymore. She hung onto anger until the death rattle came for her and took her words away. I spoke to her softly as her eyes pleaded to me, “Let it all go. Be at peace now.” I hope she was.
However, there was a time about two weeks before she died, that I sat on my mother’s patio with her sitting across from me and we told stories about my dad that made us both smile and shed a few tears because he could have been so much more than he was. Damn, I miss talking to my mom.
One thing we talked about was attempting to understand my dad.
He was a man that grew up in poverty, the kind of poverty where you consider yourself lucky to eat cornbread and beans for dinner each night. He was southern poor, where his overalls were worn down because he didn’t have much else to wear, and he was grateful for shoes that fit and did not have holes in them. Otherwise, he went barefoot. However, the pain of his poverty was enhanced, like salt in an open wound, by the fact that his father, my grandfather, sat with millions in his bank account across town. His father divorced his mother, and left her with nothing, even though he was filthy rich. My dad was his father’s only child, yet, he wanted nothing to do with him. He abandoned him until my dad was almost a man, and then he came enticing him with a different life. One of riches and Cadillac's. My dad took the bait but never was completely caught. It was a pain my father hung onto all of his life. One he hung onto after he found out his father put a bullet through his head inside his northern Alabama mansion. I never saw my dad shed a tear for his father, and maybe he shouldn’t have. Perhaps he did it in private. I am not sure. I only saw my dad cry twice. Once when a dog died and once when he took himself off dialysis and was waiting to die, and he wept as he told me he loved my mom. I do think he loved her. My dad tried to contest a will that once had the money coming to him and me and my siblings. The will was changed before my grandfather’s suicide and none of us saw a penny. I guess money truly does not buy happiness. Otherwise, my grandfather, with all of his privilege, would probably have lived a long life instead of eating a bullet.
I have never made excuses for my dad’s abuse or his alcoholism or anything else about him that caused so much pain. He, like all of us, is responsible for his own actions. He needed to be accountable. Poverty does not have to make you hurtful. Being abandoned, having trauma, does not give you the excuse to be abusive to others. I have heard my mother say that she feels my dad was bipolar. I am not sure about that. Looking back, I am not sure I see a man who was manic or would meet the criteria of being bipolar. I think it helped my mom justify his cruelty. What I did see was a man who struggled with controlling his anger and sometimes rage. I see a man who had no male mentors growing up and he did not have the wisdom to seek them out. I saw a man who struggled with undiagnosed depression and he had no idea what to do or how to cope with his pain. At times, I see a man who tried to control everyone in his adult life because he had none as a child. I also see a man who displayed violence and took much of it out on his youngest. I cannot be blind to what he did to me, but I can still forgive.
However, there was another side to the man. The one that made my mom and I smile and cry on her porch last summer. He did provide for his family. Certainly, my dad did have a problem with spending too much money, which was one of the reasons they went bankrupt, but he made sure we were fed. He made sure we had clothes and a roof over our heads. There were times when I would walk around the corner and see him holding my mom, kissing her gently, and they seemed happy. They embraced each other lovingly. I liked witnessing those times. It made me feel safe, like maybe he was changing. He often displayed humor that made all of us laugh, and he loved country music. The good stuff, like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, George Jones, and Marty Robbins. I still listen to Johnny Cash sing and it either brings a smile or tear. There were times when I overheard my dad talking about me playing football and though he never told me, he seemed proud. There were other times when he would come and find me and teach me how to box or fight dirty like he was taught in the Army. I appreciated those times. It was attention that was welcomed. His lessons often hurt, but they seemed like a right of passage. I took several left hooks from him, but it taught me to keep my hands up and confirmed I had a strong chin. I still miss him calling, “Roy Boy!” from the couch or the sidelines. I had to find the good things in order to find forgiveness. Forgiving him was a gift to myself.
My dad was one of the most intelligent people I ever met. There were times when I loved hearing him talk about politics or history. I wish he would have done more with the gifts he possessed.
Someone asked me about something I wrote a few years ago about my dad. They asked, “Did you mean it when you said you were happy when he died? That seems harsh.” My reply was, “Yes, I meant it. His death made my mom safe. I am afraid my brother or I would have had to kill him if he wouldn’t have killed himself. And yes, it may sound harsh and I envy you for thinking that.”
I don’t love my dad. Not in the way a son should love his father. However, I don’t regret him being my father. I had to reframe my dialogue about him, which is that I am thankful I was able to endure what he put me through. It has made me a reflective, loving, empathetic, compassionate, and resilient man. My father was my greatest adversary, next to my own mind, and his lessons have stuck with me for a lifetime. His lessons have made me build my personal armor, and like many hardships that we face, he oddly was one of my greatest teachers.