There But For…

From the ages of 13 through 31 I alternately despised, abhorred, and hated my Dad.

As the oldest of four kids, I have the dubious honor of being the only one who recalls what he was like before the two tours in Vietnam. Back when he was present, when he was a loving, caring man who freely expressed how he felt about Mom and the two children in his life at the time.

As an adult, I know why he made the choices he did. Taking two voluntary (!) tours in Southeast Asia during the height of the conflict had amazing monetary perks. He must have known the bonus could be invested and would result in a little windfall later … but this was unknown to any of us until he died in 2008. Just trust me when I say hindsight isn’t just 20/20, it’s super clear, high-def, and worth a five digit inheritance nearly 40 years after-the-fact.

But that’s not the point of this post.

I was 6 when he returned from the second tour. Subsequently, I had a front-row seat as he deteriorated into the alcoholic asshole he’d become by the time I reached junior high, when he realized he had two young sons watching the two older, teenage daughters he couldn’t control.

What do I mean by “control?” Well, one of us (hint: NOT ME) tried to sneak out of her bedroom window regularly and (just as regularly) got caught (because she has always sucked at that finesse thing). At one point Dad even nailed a bedroom window shut (of course my sister’s) to prevent future escape (great thinking ahead, so glad there wasn’t a fire, Dad).

And he knew, just KNEW I was up to something, but he could never prove it. This is because I have always known how to get away with things. I won’t share my secrets here, as it will only give 16 year olds ideas – you’re welcome, parents – but manipulation is easy once you get the hang of it.

That’s kind of a lie. It was easy to get away with stuff because he and Mom were always drunk and passed out by 9pm.

One particularly awful evening, my sister had been grounded yet again, and I had permission to take the car out. As I backed out of the driveway, I saw her run out of the house with my Dad right on her tail. He tackled her on the front lawn and proceeded to pistol-whip her.

You read that right. The butt of a gun, aiming for her head. And you can say, “What was he thinking?!” just as I do, but I don’t believe he was thinking. He was hammered, as usual, and we all make the bestest decisions when we’re drunk, don’t we? To this day, I waver between “He was trying to scare her and it didn’t work” and “He had finally had it and was going to keep her at home even if it meant shooting her to do it.” I’ll never know, because I never asked him. Hell, I’ve never even asked her, though I think that would make for an interesting conversation over cocktails sometime.

(If you require closure on that story: I gathered up all three of my siblings and drove directly to the police station, where the cops said there was absolutely nothing they could do. We sat in the waiting area for about 30 minutes until a nice officer came out and gently told us to go home. This is how much our society has changed between 1982 and now, kids: they take domestic violence and child abuse a tad more seriously.)

But that’s not really the point of this post, either.

I don’t share to gain pity points or a big “boo-hoo” from anyone, nor to explain my own grown up behaviors. I share because I had an epiphany while watching yet another “girl kills her father” story on ID.

Through all those turbulent, violent, terrible years, even after the one and only time my Dad got violent with me by holding my neck and shoving me into a wall at age 17, I never, not once, considered killing him. Not as a defense, not as a strategy, not as a solution. It simply never occurred to me.

None of the four of us kids has ever gotten a jail sentence, nor have we murdered anyone (to the best of my knowledge, anyway). Oh, I’ve considered it – paraphrasing comic Christopher Titus, if you’ve never seriously considered murder, you’ve never been divorced – but I’d never actually do it. So if my Dad didn’t manage to do everything else in the parenting realm quite right, there is at least that. Though I credit Mom a little more, as the woman had more integrity in her pinky finger than most people have in their entire bodies and a seemingly endless font of patience.

Still, the two of them, for all their faults and foibles, managed to do a great job with us. We are each successful and productive members of society and, if not genuinely happy, at least content in our choices. That’s all a parent wants, right?

Now I said at the beginning my negative feelings for my Dad ranged from age 13 to 31. Thirteen is easy to decipher: That’s the age a kid starts to strike out for more freedom and starts butting heads with the authority figures in her life. The 31, though … that’s when I finally saw him for the imperfect, broken, frail, insecure adult he was. It happens to all adult children, if you’re honest. It’s discomfiting, at first, to discover the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree not just physically, but mentally as well. We truly are our mother’s and father’s children.

And I can’t say I forgave him even then – that took quite a few more years and his first and only grandchild, my niece – but it was a start. He and I never really talked after Mom died and to be honest, I don’t miss him much, but damn if I’m still not having these epiphanies about myself based on my relationship with him.

Life continues to be full of surprises.

If all you have is a hammer …

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