John Davis | Empowering Goa
The last time I saw him, I was 7 years old. That was the day he abandoned my mother and me after they had had another fight. He stole the family truck, which my mother had bought, and private investigators had to find it and bring it back. He was on his way home to Oklahoma after moving the whole family to Austin, Texas, where he swore he would get an education at the University of Texas. In reality, he just drank on the couch watching TV and going to play golf. This was after he and my mother married a few months earlier. She wanted her son to have a real father, but instead, she got him.
When he took off, the divorce was obvious. It must have been humiliating to my mother, but she pushed through, even when the truck died on us halfway home from Austin to our family home in Oklahoma. He had apparently sabotaged the vehicle, leaving my mother and me, his 7 year old son, stranded in the middle of nowhere Texas. We were fortunate enough to be near a truck stop somewhere outside of Waco a few miles from where the truck broke. My uncle came some time around three in the morning to tow us back to my grandmother’s home. It was disgraceful. I hated him, and when she asked if he had ever physically hurt me, I lied. He had never touched me, with malice or caress for that matter, but the point was no crime had been committed. She saw through the lie, and I told the truth at the point I realized that she would be held responsible if I lied to get him in trouble.
Still, she abandoned all rights to child support just so he had no part in raising me. It would make it hard, but it was probably the best choice she ever made for me. He wasn’t a good man. And so it passed that I never saw him again.
As my memory serves, four years later, we were notified of his death when Social Security informed us by way of a letter to our home that we would be receiving SS benefits for the passing of my father. He had died of cirrhosis of the liver. He had drank himself to death at 45.
When my Mom explained what the letter meant, I cried. It doesn’t really matter how much a child can loathe his parents. When one finds out that one dies, it is an existential crisis, the first realization that we are mortal creatures and that nothing is timeless. Furthermore, a significant relationship has ended. There is no hope for a happier ending, no matter how happy, or in my case — tragic, it was. I mourned him, right there, sobbing on the table that still sits in our living room. I did this for about 5 minutes. Then I was done. My mourning process for my father lasted less than the average commercial break for my cartoons. I asked mom if I could go back to what I was doing. I wasn’t all right of course, but I would manage. I probably went on for the rest of that day, played video games and checked out mentally to not deal with what was going on.
I, of course, was curious about what killed my father and started asking my mom (a nurse, and for all intents and purposes, the knower of all things knowable about the human body) about what cirrhosis of the liver was. She explained to me that it was when the liver filters beyond the limit it was capable of doing. Cirrhosis of the liver isn’t something that surprises you. You don’t die of it in the way you die of a heart attack. There are no “liver attacks” that take a man’s life within the dance of a minute hand. It slowly just shuts down. He knew it was coming and said nothing to either of us. He didn’t even reach out knowing that we lived only 20 minutes away. We weren’t present when he died. We weren’t extended an invitation to the the funeral. We didn’t even know, not until Social Security informed us.
Slowly? So he had time to see me before he died and didn’t come see me? He didn’t even try? How could he not even want to see me when he is going to die? How could he hate me so much?
These are not questions an 11 year old handles very well.
I remember that after that I hated even the idea of fathers. I was horribly jealous of the kids who had good dads and angry at mine for everything, even dying. I remember once when I was 13, I stayed the night at a friend’s house. He told me about how his dad took the blade out of a Bic razor and showed him how to shave. I saw the bladeless razor and thought about my friend and his dad. The next night at my house I decided that I was going to shave myself. I took one of the razors and tried to figure it out. I got a few strokes and then cut my chin pretty badly. I jerked from the pain and a few drops of blood fell on the sink. It hurt a bit and I started to tear up. I started to think about Chris and how I wished his dad could just show me how to do it. I started wishing that I just had a dad to show me how not to cut myself shaving. I just wished so hard that I had a good dad. I wished my dad was good and was here to help me. I ran to my room and cried into my pillow. I think in that moment I felt such emptiness and resentment. I never hated my dad more than in those early years as I transitioned into manhood without anyone to show me how.
But this isn’t a story about hate. It is about forgiveness.
I stayed very angry when I thought about my father, or really anyone lucky enough to have one. Progress the story forward to one night, when I was 16. My mother and I went for a drive around the lake. I don’t really think that she had any plan to have some deep talk, just to spend time with me and perhaps to take advantage of teachable moments that may arise as we drove around the water. We talked a lot that night, and eventually it made its way to my father. I said that I hated him. I said that I know it makes no sense to hate someone after they were dead, but I did.
“Jon. There are some things you need to know…”
She told me then that my father was a man who couldn’t love.
I didn’t understand how a person couldn’t love . I was cynical of even hearing the suggestion. I’d grown up in a loving household with my mother and Gan, my grandmother. I’d been raised in a loving church just down the street from my house. My teachers were caring and attentive, and brought out the best of me. Even my martial arts instructor had been like a father to me, teaching me lessons that often involved me dragging myself off the mat. The sole source of non-love in my life was the man I expected the most from. How could a person not love?
As she explained, I was very different from my father.
When he was a child he wasn’t as fortunate as I was. His father was around. His father was an alcoholic, like mine, but unlike my father, his father beat him and his brothers as well as my paternal grandmother and from what mom was alluding to, more as well which remained ever unspoken.
“To be funny,” she said, “he would get my dad drunk when he was 4. It was funny to see a child stumbling around, and slurring words he’d only just learned. Because of this your dad was an alcoholic before he was 14.” Among my uncles I think that my dad probably turned out alright by comparison. I believe two went to prison and one was murdered in a drug deal gone wrong or criminal assassination of some sort. I had another, Uncle Ed. He died of cancer. I’d like the record to show that though my memories of him are few, I remember I really liked him. He was apparently a very decent man in a family that tried its hardest to produce only bad ones.
After a screwed up childhood, my father joined the military, during Vietnam. I hadn’t know that. Even less, I had no idea he was a Green Beret, a member of the Army’s Special Forces. I don’t know if he was ever deployed, but he trained others in knife fighting and other forms of hand to hand combat. From my time in the service with the Marines, I know that the uniform can greatly improve a man, but in the case of my dad and many others, I am afraid that the ideas of service and care for your country would likely get lost. The military’s philosophies and training might only feed violent and hurtful tendencies towards others who lack the sense of honorable purpose and loyalty to country that drew me to joining after 9/11.
I don’t blame the Army in the slightest. I’m very critical of people who say things like “The Army will be good for him. It will really set his life in order.” Contrary to the stereotype, the military isn’t a reform school. It doesn’t fix broken people. It can draw out the good in many, often amplifying already present greatness like a well honed sword made of good metal. For others, such as my dad, you just can’t hammer something which is broken into something that is fixed. My military experience made me into something I love being, but I just don’t think they could have done much for a person like that.
It was many years after the Army that he met my mom. He told her often that he couldn’t love, and to his credit, she didn’t listen. Thinking of his childhood, and how important the relationships I had were to who I am, I understand now what he meant. He couldn’t love her, or me, or anyone and certainly not himself. By the time I came around he was probably just a very broken man who my mom was unfortunate enough to love.
That night and the insight it brought was one of the life changing moments in my life. I’m not saying, “it was important.” I’m saying that if you had to narrow down your life to 10 moments that changed who you are, that was one of them. I had lived my whole life hating my father, a man who had done nothing worthwhile and now to see another side. A part he couldn’t change and that he wasn’t responsible for. He was born into a world he couldn’t control, with people who didn’t protect him or nurture him, or try to make him a good man. He was broken before he could have a chance to be good. I really don’t know if Mom knew how important that night was to me, but it was perhaps the most important moment in my life where my relationship with my father was concerned.
From here I went on for a few years. Every now and then I would have a quiet moment and my father would come up in my thoughts. Some time ago, I realized I didn’t hate the man any more. I pitied him. How could you hate someone like that? Living the existence he did was punishment enough, let alone to be eternally resented by your offspring. And once I made that realization I looked at my life. I am kind and fair. I try to do good things and help others. I value intelligence and morality. I am a good husband who loves his wife very much. My family is proud of the things I do and how I treat them. Now I am a father and I look forward very much to teaching my daughter and her future siblings the things that make people good. I want my sons to be good men and my daughters to know what type of men to look for.
This couldn’t have happened if my father had been an active part of my life. I wonder if he knew that. I like to think that he always avoided me for that reason, but in any case, I am thankful that he wasn’t there. It made me a better man. Of course, I still regret not having a dad in my life. It will always be a void that can’t be filled, but when I think about what it was like growing up, hating a man who in so many ways forced me to be the individual I am today, I have to say this is better. I am glad that I now know what it should mean to be a father, and even though I have to invent how to do it myself, the ideal I always wanted growing up is serving as a decent compass and my father’s mistakes the lighthouse guiding me from the rocks.
I am glad that I can tell my children about their grandfather, who served honorably during a very trying time in our nation’s history. He was an elite warrior, far greater than their daddy ever was and that is something our family can always be proud of. He can also serve as an example that there are people in this world who are truly suffering. They are broken and scarred and won’t treat us the way we treat them. They won’t love us back. We don’t have to keep these people close, but hate won’t get us anything. Hating my dad was something I did when I was a scarred, hurt, and very resentful little boy. But when I learned to understand and forgive him was probably the moment when I started being a man. In some small way, I like to think that was his only way to help me do that.
I never learned any of this until after he died, but because of that knowledge I’m now a man who can give his daughter more hugs and kisses in a day than I ever received from my father in a lifetime, and who can read “Love Monster and the Perfect Present” in the funny voice to a tiny girl who is elated every time I smile at her.