My dad and I had a rough time growing up together. Dad was a Lieutenant Colonel when he retired from the United States Air Force, having spent the majority of his career in the cockpit training pilots. For a short time, Dad required my brother and me to stand at attention and answer all questions with “Yes, Sir” or “No, Sir.” Mom finally had enough and overrode Sir Dad. “They’re children, Gil, not cadets.”
I was the oldest of three and, as a teenager, rebelled against Dad’s heavy handed, militaristic approach to child rearing. I often felt berated by my father and, after one particularly demeaning experience, I slammed my bedroom door and took a baseball bat from my closet. I swore to myself, “If he comes into my room, I’ll kill him. I hate him.”
I sought solace in the comfort of sexual fantasies. What my adolescent brain could not grasp at the time was that Dad and I were in this turmoil together. While I was fighting my dad, he was fighting his demons from past violent encounters with his own father. When I was in hot pursuit of porneia to relieve my emotional pain, so was Dad. My father bought pornography, used it, and then hid it. I found his stash, used it, and then put it back where I found it. Dad and I weren’t so different, were we? It did not occur to me until many years later, that I was not the only one caught in the cycle of shame in my family of origin. So was Dad. We were on parallel paths, fighting (and losing) the very same battle with sexual addiction. I now wonder…
- What if Dad caught me with one of his dirty magazines? Could that have caused a confrontation that might have resulted in healing for both of us?
- Did Mom know Dad hid pornographic magazines? If she did, why did she allow it? Didn’t she care? Was she able to care?
- Did Dad know I was sneaking peeks at his Playboy’s? If he did, why did he allow it? Didn’t he care? Was he able to care?
Our suffering was somehow linked, even complementary. It fit together like a psychological jig-saw puzzle. If Dad suffered, so would I. If he beat his demons, so would I. We were in the battle for emotional survival together.
I learned that my paternal grandfather was a drunk and a wife beater. My dad was once a boy like me, trapped in the chaos and dysfunction of his family of origin. Years later, for reasons I still cannot fully comprehend, my dad was compelled to take out his father-hatred on his longhaired, oldest son. We were both just trying to survive. What neither one of us comprehended was that my emotional survival meant his, and his meant mine.
Dad did not enter my room that day, and I never took a swing at him with a wooden bat. However, more fist fights would follow during my high school years.
Once my mother tried to break up one of our more violent brawls. I took a swing at Dad. He ducked and my punch landed on Mom’s jaw. “Look what you did to my wife,” he screamed, and upped the intensity of the beating. The next day I proudly showed off my facial bruising to awestruck buddies. It was a different era then, but I suspect I was physically abused in ways most of my friends were not.
When I was in first grade we lived in Greenville, Mississippi. Mom was out of town with my baby sister attending Grandpa’s funeral. My dad was home alone, taking care of my younger brother, Rick, and me. During breakfast one morning, I dropped a gallon jar of milk spreading white liquid and shattered glass all over the kitchen floor. Dad lost control of himself, and with arms flailing, screamed, “God damn it! God damn it.” Dad was bigger than life, and Rick and I were just little squirts. We were pretty frightened.
About forty years later, I invited my father out for breakfast. I was fairly new in my recovery from sexual addiction. We sat in a McDonald’s restaurant in Beaverton, Oregon, and I reminded him of the spilled milk incident. He well remembered the event and many other times he lost his temper and became physically or verbally abusive with Rick and me. He humbly expressed his sorrow for the way he raised us. Dad explained that those memories were kept locked up in a deep, black vault of pain in his heart. He did not like to think about them. I suggested we go to that dark place, and I reminded my dad that we were in this struggle together. His black hole of regret was my black hole of abuse. His way out was to plunge into the darkness and acknowledge his sin. My way out was to take the plunge with him and offer forgiveness. God forgave him and so did I. I suggested we could visit these unhappy times together with Jesus, and perhaps Dad could learn to forgive himself. Together we wept in public over coffee and Egg McMuffins. Dad found peace. He embraced his emotional pain and helped me do the same. We helped each other.
Dad was not all bad. He was a soldier. My father would have taken a bullet and given his life, without question, to protect me. He did not know how to express his love any better than to fulfill his duty as a military man. My father loved me the best he knew how. He simply was not prepared for a boy like me with a mind of his own. We clashed hard, but reconciled well. I forgave him. I had to for my own emotional wellbeing. There was no other way. Our reconciliation saved him, and it saved me as well. Only Jesus could have accomplished such a miracle of redemption. Dad and I remained fast friends until he died on July 23rd, 2005. I cried again at his funeral, and still do occasionally, when I consider the loss of this imperfect but good man who helped, in his broken way, to shape me into the decent man I am today.
Emotional pain does not go away. The intensity may lessen in time, but it will never disappear. I still think about my childhood from time to time. Some of these memories make me smile and feel warm all over. Others hurt, still, but I am learning to forgive myself and those who contributed to my suffering. When I forgave my dad, I set both myself and Dad free. When my father willingly participated in my journey of healing, he set himself and me free. I’m not sure how this worked, I just know that it did. The emotional pain Dad and I carried defined us and, at the point of reconciliation, became the best part of our Jesus story together.
Before Dad died, I invited him to attend a retreat where I was the featured speaker. With a little nudge from my mom, “Go ahead, Gil; go to the retreat with your son,” he chose to attend. I shall never forget the joy and peace that washed over me when I beheld from the podium my own father weep as I spoke about the love we found and then shared together. Our redemption was mutually contagious and complete. It took a generation of time to make our peace, but we did, together. Thankfully, we realized, before it was too late, that we were on the same side in the battle for emotional survival.