My Father Had to Die Before I Could Forgive Him

D.R. McElroy

How a traumatized child learned to love again. 7 min read.

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Both of my parents were active alcoholics, barely functioning in their lives and careers. My mother also suffered from mental illness and the burden of trying to be the “responsible adult” with a defective set of tools.

So it fell to her 8-year-old child to raise the 6- and 4-year-olds: getting them up in the mornings, making breakfast, ushering them to the bus or the babysitter’s all dressed and with a bag lunch, walking them home in the afternoons, settling them with their homework, and prodding a comatose parent sufficiently to ensure that the evening meal was prepared.

I then cleaned up the dishes afterwards, saw to pj’s and toothbrushing, and put them to bed. Then, I finished my own homework and frequently urged either or both parents to bed before turning in myself.

This routine continued until my little brothers were old enough to look after themselves, whereupon we each saw to our own needs and made our own meals. And I quit trying to get my parents to take care of themselves.

The problems with my father began farther back than I can remember. My parents’ early marriage was strained by my father’s military career (which bounced us all over the country), and by my arrival just 13 months after their wedding day. My father was already an alcoholic when they married; in fact, his mother told the future bride, “He’ll crawl into a bottle and die if you don’t marry him”. And so she did. And she never let him forget it.

I have blocked much of my young childhood from my memory — I can’t remember anything before age 6, except seeing the horse “Black Jack” with the riding boots turned backwards in the stirrups being led during John F. Kennedy’s funeral. I was almost exactly the same age as the president’s young son, John Jr.

I have “impressions” of flashing red lights, loud voices, and crashing sounds. To this day, raised voices frighten and upset me. When I try to probe the dark recesses of my memory, I experience paralyzing fear so intense I can hardly breathe. I have come to learn that the flashing red lights belonged to police cars called to the scene of a domestic disturbance on more than one occasion.

My father was an angry, emotional, abusive drunk; my mother an angry, cold, aloof one. He beat her, and on more than one occasion she hit him back. I saw him throw her to the floor and rape her once. I told myself it was a dream — until I found her torn nightgown in the trash the next day.

There is enormous emotional damage done to a child that is raised in a violent household. Depression, anxiety, anger, PTSD, personality disorders, and other issues can arise due to repeated childhood trauma. These issues are beyond the scope of this article.

But somewhere along the developmental ladder of childhood, a traumatized child has to choose whose “side” they’re on. When only one parent is unstable, the child will most likely cling to and rely on the stable parent, whether that is the mother or the father. But when both parents are profoundly damaged, the child will default to the mother as their alpha leader.

Since I chose my mother’s side when I was just a baby, everything she later did was “right” in my judgment. Consequently, that meant everything my father did was wrong. He got the blame for my mother’s alcoholism, he got the blame for every fight they got into, he was judged as the angry one, the mean one, the one who couldn’t be trusted.

I continued to feel this way about my father even after my mother’s behavior became more erratic and crueler. By then, my die was cast and nothing could make me believe that her problems weren’t somehow my father’s fault. He and I fought frequently as I got older, angry volleys of words that hurt us both. By the time I left home to live on my own, I hated his guts.

After my mother died, I blamed him for that, too. He actually asked me almost the minute I arrived at their home following her death, “Do you blame me?” I knew exactly what he meant. I replied, “I don’t blame you for her death, I blame you for her life.” I said it with as much cruelty as I could manage, and I saw that my words devastated him. I was glad.

I’ve written elsewhere about my mother’s death, and the effects it had on me. Following it, dealing with my father was even more difficult than before. He took her death hard and reverted to a victimhood state, claiming that no one’s pain was equal to his own and wanting his adult children to drop their lives and take care of him. None of us wanted anything to do with him.

So, he took up with “Marilyn”, his old high school girlfriend — a woman he had kept in touch with the entire 35 years of his marriage to my mother. Less than two months after my mother’s death, he moved in with Marilyn, who by the worst karma possible, happened to live in the same city I lived in. I was so enraged that I couldn’t even speak to him, and rebuffed his attempts to get me to visit him at Marilyn’s house.

I could go on with the many new transgressions he committed in the short period that he lived with that woman, but there’s no need: he was dead 6 months later from a drunken fall he took while making his final arrangements to move in with her fulltime. In my delight at this turn of affairs, I referred to his fall as “the Divine Push.”

His funeral was a disaster. My brothers and I made it a private affair, partially since we were still reeling from the loss of our mother just 6 months prior and we didn’t feel like hosting another bunch of strangers so soon. By the time we changed our minds, the privacy notice had already gone out and no one came to the viewing at the funeral home.

Graveside, we had a color guard from the American Legion where my father had been post commander and I hired a live bagpiper to play “Amazing Grace.” Unfortunately, the piper wasn’t very skilled, and the beautiful hymn was a mangled mess. I yelled for him to STOP before he finished it.

I remained angry at my father for many years after his death. In fact, I never planned on forgiving him for the agony he put my mother and us children through for all those years.

But something happened after I began psychotherapy following my mother's death. Slowly, I became aware of the fact that my mother wasn’t completely blameless for the turmoil in their marriage. I learned that her alcoholism was not my father’s fault, and that there was nothing he could have done about it even if he’d wanted to.

I learned that my mother had been mentally ill herself, which exacerbated her genetic predisposition to alcoholism. I learned that my father had turned to Marilyn because he was emotionally weak and incapable of living alone like an adult. He’d been taken care of his entire life by his mother until she died, and then leaned heavily on my less-than-capable mother to continue babying him. She more or less did so, failing to look after her own health, until she died prematurely.

It took me a long time to learn these things and to realize that I shared a number of these issues myself. Poor parenting often begets children who never grow up — or who grow up “badly” — and who become poor parents themselves. I never had children, partly because I recognized early on that I was hopelessly screwed up and I had no desire to pass that on to yet another generation.

I’ve been in therapy for a long time now, and I’m still working out a lot of my crap. I have quit blaming my parents for most of my problems and instead just do the best I can to gain the skills I need to move ahead with my life. I won’t lie: It’s hard, painstaking, and difficult work. It takes a long time to change the attitudes and beliefs established over a lifetime filled with trauma.

But a while back I realized that I had stopped being angry with my father. The last time my partner and I were back home, I visited my parents’ graves. I stood there alone and told them, “I forgive you both. I love you, but I won’t be back here again. And I’m going to be okay.”

And so far, I am.

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D.R. McElroy is a published author, writer, and copy editor with 15 years professional experience. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Masters in Environmental Resources. A conservationist, naturalist, and environmental advocate, she spends her time writing nonfiction articles on a variety of topics, as well as writing books on contract for publishers. D.R. wants to build a community of people who love nature and wildlife as much as she does, and who want to help protect our resources for public use.

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