He was strong and kind, slow to anger and generous with what he earned. He supported me. He supported my whole family. Then one day, when I was in my early thirties, a horrible revelation kicked the supports away and I fell into the dust.
That was the day I called my step-mother on Easter, to wish her a happy holiday. I called her from work, because I could get a free long-distance line. I was more than half-way through my 20-years in the Air Force then and stationed in Germany. My dad lived with me. I had taken him in because he had fallen apart emotionally and physically after he and my step-mother divorced five years before.
After half-a-decade, I still didn’t know why their marriage failed. They had been together for twenty years and it seemed like a pretty good relationship. And for reasons unknown, both parents refused to reveal what broke them apart.
Whenever I called, my step-mom found it difficult to talk with me. Apparently, I reminded her of my father and many terrible, but secret, memories. This time, after a few minutes, she had broken down in tears and asked me not to call anymore. She just couldn’t take it. I was devastated. My biological mother had left my father and I when I was nineteen- months-old, and here, my step-mom, the only mother I had ever known, was abandoning me as well.
“Roy, I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t.” I could barely understand her as she sobbed, nor could I understand why we couldn’t still be mother and son.
“I don’t think you should contact your step-brother or sister, either, Roy. They are coping with problems of their own, and you’ll just complicate things.”
“You know you’ll be leaving me with no family.” My voice started to break.
“I have to go,” she said.
I didn’t want to make a scene in the workcenter or hurt my mother’s feelings anymore than necessary, so I said, “Okay, mom. Goodbye.” But before I hung up the phone, she said, “Wait…I need to tell you something.”
There was a long minute of dead silence on the line. I was about to ask if she was still there when she finally spoke.
“The reason I divorced your father was because he sexually abused your step-sister and one of your step-brothers from the time they were nine until they were sixteen. I wouldn’t tell you this, except that you’re dating that woman with two kids,” she said.
Early in our call, I had told her I was in a long-term relationship with a woman who had two children.
Don’t let those little boys be alone with him.” And she hung up.
It took awhile for that to soak in.
The image I held of my father shattered like a favorite mirror into a million shards. That mirror was one I looked into often and saw myself, one that reflected all the ways I was like my dad: the line of our jaw, the gentleness of our eyes, the kind sternness that bubbled up from our hearts. Those mirrored images broke into sharp pieces of betrayal that sliced through my love and especially my trust.
Now what was reflected in the mirror? I found some of my identity there. Could I do that now? Was I like my father in ways I hadn’t looked very deeply at? According to my grandmother, my grandfather had been a child abuser. She’d caught him in the back of his auto repair garage with a little girl who had her panties around her ankles. I was afraid of just how deep our similarities might be.
I can’t say I was angry right away. Emotionally, I was lost and didn’t know what to feel. Pouring myself a cup of coffee, I stepped outside for a smoke in the break area, but couldn’t sit still, so I walked around the satellite compound where I worked, thinking and looking up at the stars. Their light seemed cold there in the black vacuum of space. That’s how the inside of my chest felt, cold and utterly empty.
I felt alone, too. My mother had just pushed me aside, unable to stand the pain I caused by association. She’d cut me off from my siblings, as well. I didn’t have a biological mother that I knew, and now I find out I didn’t really know my dad either. Was he going away, too?
I walked for hours, smoking cigarette after cigarette until Hal, one of my co-workers, came out and said they needed me back inside.
“You alright?” He asked.
I put my hand on his shoulder, “No. But let’s not talk about it. Okay?” He shrugged it off and we went inside.
The rest of my shift went by quickly, and soon I was driving home to face my dad. A prospect I was not looking forward to.
My dad wan’t home when I arrived. So, I had a little while to mull over what I might say and how he might react. What was I going to do? We were living in Germany. I couldn’t easily distance myself from him, but that wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do anyway. I didn’t really know what I was going to do. Confusion and disbelief clouded my thinking.
I was angry, especially about how my father’s perversion had injured my family and driven them from me. What kind of hell had my sister and brother been through as children? And now as adults? What amount of guilt weighed my mother down after she found out what had happened? What fits of painful self-condemnation wracked her after discovering she hadn’t protected her children?
Even though these and a dozen other mixed-up thoughts pounded me, I still couldn’t have brought myself to just throw him out into the cold. Knowledge of his sinful perversion cut through my love, but now I can see that those bonds were too tough, too deep to be severed quickly.
When my dad came in, we exchanged our usual greetings. He stood in the living room doorway, swaying a little. He’d been over at a local pub, the Snell Imbiss, drinking with a few of his German friends. I sat at my word processor, where I had been writing a letter.
“I called mom today,” I said, letting that sink in.
“Yeah? What’d that bitch have to say?” He sat down, pulled out a cigarette and lit it.
The revulsion in his voice and the emphasis on the name, “bitch” made me wince inwardly. “Who are you to call anyone a bitch?” I thought.
“She told me why you two divorced.”
He froze a little in his chair, then took a deep drag and flicked his ashes.
“What did she tell you?”
“She told me you sexually abused my step-sister and step-brother from the time they were nine until they were sixteen.”
“What do you think of that?”
His cold matter-of-factness shocked me. At the same time, I was glad he didn’t deny anything. I had feared my confrontation with him might turn into a shouting match of denials and recriminations. Instead, he sat there quietly smoking in the shadows across the room. I could see his hand shake as he rolled the glowing red tip of his cigarette along the edge of his ashtray, betraying the fact that he was afraid, either of losing me or having to go back stateside to uncertain circumstances.
“I certainly don’t think it was right, dad. How could you do that? What the fuck were you thinking?” I was growing upset.
“Well, you need to hear my side of it, Roy. Your step-sister had a role to play…”
“Don’t give me that shit! My brother and sister were kids. You were a grown-up! He was ten and she was fucking nine-goddamn-years-old, dad!”
We sat there in silence. I couldn’t believe he was trying to make excuses. I felt ready to explode. He’d poisoned everything I knew about my family. It was gone.
Even though I was furious, what strangely coursed through my mind right then was how I needed to forgive. It was Easter. I am a Christian, and I deeply believe in the teachings of Jesus and the commandments of God. And all evening as I walked around the compound, I had been asking myself, “Even now, does God expect me to honor my Father? Even now, in the face of such an abomination, does Jesus want me to forgive? I’m an only child. My biological mother was who knew where. To shun my father made me an orphan to all intent and purposes. Is that what I wanted?”
My dad hadn’t moved or said a word. He just sat there smoking. I’m sure he was more than a little drunk. He and his buddies at the Imbiss put away a lot of beer a few nights a week.
Above my desk I had tacked a Calvin and Hobbes comic that I had cut from the Stars and Stripes Newspaper. It was one where Calvin’s Dad has just arrived home, and a sheepish Calvin is standing in the yard with a sign that says, “Hate the sin. Love the sinner.” Above the Dad’s head is a thought bubble with the words, “Uh, oh.”
“Yeah. Uh, oh’s an understatement.” I thought.
I’d hung it there because it was funny and it was something I truly believed in.
I pulled it off the wall, took a deep breath, and walked over to my dad and handed him the comic.
“Why’re you giving me this?” He asked. “What’s it got to do with anything”
“Dad, listen. It doesn’t matter where truth comes from. I believe what that comic says and I have to forgive you what you’ve done: for you, for me, for God. No matter how you’ve betrayed me, I can’t hate you. You’re my father. But no matter what, this is going to take some time to resolve.”
He held the comic for a moment, then handed it back. He avoided looking me in the eyes and didn’t have anything to say.
I said goodnight, and went to my bedroom, where I tried to read, but couldn’t concentrate. Eventually, I fell asleep.
My dad and I didn’t talk much for days after that evening. But eventually, the air began to thaw, and we slowly returned to a semblance of regular day to day life.
I had to tell my girlfriend at the time about what I’d found out, for her children’s sake. She supported me and empathized, but she was wary of my dad, and it wasn’t long before we parted ways. And no matter how amicable our parting was, it left me just as alone.
Two years after the fateful call, we returned to the States, and he lived with me for three more, until I met my future wife and married her. During that time, our relationship was cool and distant. He lived on the upper floor of the place I rented, and I lived on the bottom. We didn’t do much together. The love for him that once flowed from me with unrestricted freedom was dammed forever.
Forgiveness is a struggle, like love can be a struggle. There are days when I think of my father and only feel pity and hope he’s alright. I worry about his health and whether he has confessed his sins to God and received forgiveness. Other days, I wrestle with anger or wish he would just die and it’d be over. I can only hope that, when I stand before God and Jesus, my forgiveness was complete, but I’ll never be sure that it is.
I don’t regret my attempt to forgive, though. I shudder to imagine the damage that could have been done to both our hearts and souls by holding my anger and hatred of his sin close.
Now, I’ve been married for twenty years and have two beautiful, gifted children. I hold their love so much more dear as a result of my family’s betrayals. I have spent time in the desert, and as a result have been better able to enjoy the Easter of my soul, as it rises from the dust.