My dad died on March 28, 2005. Followed shortly thereafter by his Father in September and his Mother In November. It was a difficult year. I guess, for me, it was a transformative year. It was like the band-aid that I had worn for most of my life was torn off. I thought I had stopped the bleeding, but it had been trickling out since childhood. I told my wife a few weeks after my dad died that I had imposed a one week limit after the burial to grieve. Unfortunately other than a few tears escaping my eyes, I never really cried. I believe the dam finally burst a few weeks later when my wife, Mary, and I watched the movie Smoke Signals with her sister. I had seen the movie once before my dad died and it made me very sad. However, I wasn’t prepared for this reaction. If you haven’t seen the movie, I don’t know how to convey the stirring of emotions that it evokes if you’ve had an alcoholic father. In this case, it is a Native American father which made it that much more personal. The final scene of the movie shows the son throwing the ashes of his father from a bridge over a roaring river while collapsing in anguish that had been held inside for a lifetime. A voice over reads this poem by Dick Lourie which is both beautiful and heartbreaking
How do we forgive our Fathers?
Maybe in a dream
Do we forgive our Fathers for leaving us too often or forever
when we were little?
Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage
or making us nervous
because there never seemed to be any rage there at all.
Do we forgive our Fathers for marrying or not marrying our Mothers?
For Divorcing or not divorcing our Mothers?
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning
for shutting doors
for speaking through walls
or never speaking
or never being silent?
Do we forgive our Fathers in our age or in theirs
or their deaths
saying it to them or not saying it?
If we forgive our Fathers what is left?
I quickly left the room and went upstairs as I was feeling very emotional and didn’t want anybody to see me in my weakness. Yes, weakness. This is how I have perceived showing my emotions for most of my life. Holding in the pain, fighting to keep inside any emotion that isn’t anger. Unfortunately, Mary knew something was up and followed me upstairs. And damn her for loving me. I was on the verge of closing the lid on the bubbling pain that was ready to come out when she put her arms around me. I broke down like I never had before. It was exhausting and frightening. I was completely out of control. My life had been spent maintaining control. That was my mission. Never showing emotion, never losing control. I feared being embarrassed and I fought so hard to maintain the walls that protected me. To that point, I don’t recall ever crying as I did that night. I tried to stop. I kept saying “I can’t stop, I’m trying but I can’t”. It was awful. I imagine to most people it would have been therapeutic, but to me it was terrifying and embarrassing. My wife told me I needed to do it, that I couldn’t heal without letting it out. I struggled to regain control. I finally did, and vowed that would be the last time I cried over my father. I didn’t want to waste any more emotion on him. Of course that only managed to lengthen my process towards forgiveness to where I’m starting to write in a blog eleven years later still in pursuit of this forgiveness thing.
My wife will tell you that I did cry again. I’ve had moments where a song or a movie will manage to break through and start my internal battle between my “tears of weakness” and the emotional controls of which I’ve worked so hard for so long to perfect. My greatest failure to keep an emotional lid closed would be the nights when I would begin laughing in my sleep to the point of tears. It was loud, uncontrollable laughter which initially made my wife laugh as well. I’d wake up and we’d both be exhausted from laughter. It didn’t take long to realize that the frequent episodes were a result of internalized grief which I refused to release without a battle. Mary no longer found these episodes funny and would tell me that I needed to talk to someone. Of course I refused and to this day I’ve never stepped foot into a therapists office. The thought terrifies me.
I guess I don’t know what forgiveness is or how it is reconciled. Perhaps the last line from the above poem is what is holding me back. I don’t have much to hold onto from my Father. I have some good memories that I share with my wife and kids, but they were so few that they stand out like highlights from a movie. I find myself more and more retelling a moment of happiness with my dad that I realize they’ve probably heard multiple times and it embarrasses me that I don’t have more to share. That these few that I offer are the best I can give.
I’m hoping that just putting these thoughts down is a start. It is a difficult process to share these things without revealing more than some in my family would want revealed. I am not trying to hurt anybody. I’m just trying to become complete. For myself, my wife, and my children.