My therapist tells me that it’s natural to want to demonize the person who caused such an indelible wound in your emotional foundation. She also reassured me that it’s natural to associate a person with the pain they caused you rather than accept the imperfect human they may have been beyond the confines of their own struggles that which led them to hurt you. It’s a defense mechanism, she argued. If we only identify a person with the pain they’ve caused us, it’s easier to disassociate from the relationship and further defend doing so.
But, here’s the thing I’ve come to realize: just because it’s natural to focus on how a person may have hurt you— especially when done as an earnest attempt to avoid any more future pain— doesn’t make it right.
The fact is, Keith— my biological father— shouldn’t be defined and remembered solely as an alcoholic. His legacy shouldn’t be limited to my side of the story nor should he be thrown into the category of people who lose their life to their addiction. Even if those things are factually true, retracting everything in our story except his shortcomings or where he failed denies him of even the smallest degree of humanity. Because, no matter how much the truth and its’ repercussions have eternally harmed me, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s very likely that Keith was, like so of us, doing the best he could with what he was capable of giving.
Because life is hard.
Life is so fucking hard.
And I have no idea what his life was like beyond what I knew of him and what I knew was in short supply. I definitely didn’t know which chapters of his life led to his ultimate demise or any details beyond the superficial about the man my father was beyond his preference for Crown Royal and coke.
The question I’ve been asking myself— mostly ever since I had children— is this: Why did it never occurred to me to show Keith some grace? Why did I never think to ask him why he drank or if there was anything he was struggling with that he was trying to numb? Hell, I’ve been deeply depressed and know all about the hoops we jump through and lengths we go to to avoid whatever is causing our discomfort. And yet, I didn’t go there. Never mind the fact that I was an ignorant, inexperienced fifteen year old who didn’t know the first thing about emotional vulnerability or what was on the other side once you committed to leaning into discomfort. But, goddammit, I wish I would have.
I never considered that he, too, was a complex human being struggling to some degree through some particular season of a life that is often altogether unforgiving, relentless, and really fucking hard. It wasn’t until I became a mother that I developed any degree of compassion and empathy for my father. That’s not to say that I don’t remember why I walked away from our relationship because I do. Quite vividly, in fact.
The thing is, when you become a parent, you preternaturally begin viewing everyone as someone’s child, someone’s brother, someone’s friend. Even people who have left permanent scars on your identity somehow look less like the enemy and more like the human they were guilty of being. We’ve all fucked up. We’ve all been guilty of being human. Not all of our mistakes end up killing us or forcing your child to walk away from having a relationship with you but we’ve all made a mistake that changed our lives.
When I became a mother, I stopped looking at Keith as the person who left a gaping wound in my formative childhood and instead viewed him as yet another flawed human struggling to figure it out. As fate would have it, at the same time, my depression gave me the eye-opening opportunity that no longer allowed me to ignore or avoid his humanity.
This past Christmas Day marked sixteen years since I've spoken to my father. He died on Mother’s Day, 2009. Even after he died, there was a large chunk of time when I didn’t think about him all that much. I wasn’t sad. I can’t recall being angry. I was just numb. It wasn’t until I stumbled my way through a deeply dark depression and began numbing my discomfort with alcohol that it occurred to me that, chances are, Keith and I are much more alike that I ever gave either of us credit for. I often wonder if maybe Keith was depressed like me yet lacking the arsenal or wherewithal to unpack whatever baggage that had led him to rely on booze as his primary coping mechanism. As soon as I acknowledged that parallel, I felt a seismic shift in how I viewed my biological father and his illness and his shortcomings as a parent. As soon as I humanized him, I replaced my anger and with empathy, and compassion quickly and heavily outweighed any blame.
I’ve now not seen or spoken to my father for more than half of my life. He’s never seen me as a mother, a wife, or as an adult. He’s never witnessed me become the person I was always capable of being— the person I continue to work really fucking hard to be on a daily basis. Happiness does not come easily to me even when my life circumstances leave little room for anything other than sheer joy. There was a point in time where, out of anger and sadness and lack of closure, I convinced myself that this sad reality I found myself in was the universe giving Keith getting what he deserved. Why should he get to be a part of my life when I’m at my best when he chose to not be there to help me get to this place? Why should he get to enjoy his grandchildren when he is solely responsible for so many of the emotional roadblocks I’ve had to overcome in order to be the partner and mother I am now.
Now, I just find it sad. So very, terribly sad.
After all these years and thousands of dollars of therapy later, I find that I wish Keith, the human, was here and not blowing in the wind somewhere in Michigan. I wish that he knew the three little souls I co-created with the incredible man who I, very fortunately, was able to convince to share a life with me. I wish he knew me. I wish he got to see how whole and full my life is. I wish I was able to help him hurt less because that’s what a good person does.
Life is hard and heavy, guys. Go be good to someone today.