As I thought about this article about not making assumptions, another of the principles of the Four Agreements (yes, I do love this book!), I felt a pang of sadness related to my father. I began to reflect on conversations with clients about their parents and concluded that we often have very little understanding of our parents lives, why they are the way they are and do the things they do. Sometimes the pain caused by our parents is so great that it blinds us to seeing beyond the causes of and the effects of that pain.
Age can often offer insights and more understanding of our parents, this is true. Yet, I wonder how would our life be different, if we did not have to wait until we were 40 plus years old or our parents have died, before we can have compassion for them, and if necessary, forgiveness?
When I was growing up in the Bahamas, I was torn between the image of the romantic seafaring man that people saw in my father, and the brute I knew he could be at home. This became even more complex and problematic for me as I grew into a young woman after leaving home for university and life, with the knowledge that my father had sexually molested my older sister for many years. There is a lot more to that story than is needed to share here, but suffice it to say, it really messed with my mind for a long time.
My father was a tall big man. He was sailor rough, but also intelligent and taught himself how to do many things, including architecture and photography. But the fact that he was this gifted man, was overshadowed by how he bullied my two older brothers and that we were all creeping around the house on eggshells when he was home from sea. His moods would fluctuate from being nice, to being mean and threatening. He would hold a knife against my brothers’ throats and threaten them. Another tactic was manipulation of their emotions by giving them something, like a puppy, then taking it away. The puppy would become mine, which equalled the gift of guilt being given to me.
Where was my mother in all of this? I don’t remember, for she never did anything to stand up to him and she didn’t have any idea, it turned out, what was happening to my sister.
This man, who tormented my siblings, never touched me. Perhaps because I was the baby of the family, or perhaps it was because he coerced my sister by telling her if she didn't, then it would be me. Would he have followed through on that threat? I can never know.
One day when I was 14, I stood up to him for something so stupid. We had a small boat in the Bahamas and went out fishing or to the beach often. One day, I just didn’t want to go. He loomed around thunderingly at me and tried to manipulate me by threatening to not pay for my university starting in two years.
I remember my heart pounding as I stood up to this tyrant, “I don’t want to to go out in the boat. I will go to university, with or without your help.” I fully expected for him to lean over and smack me in the face. But he didn’t. He laughed and softened. He praised me for standing up to him. Had no-one else in my family ever tried to stand up to him? Or was it what I had stood up for that shifted him?
My father did pay for my schooling in the end. He didn’t do it for my brothers and it never came up for my sister, because one day when she was 19, she got the courage to leave home. I came home from school one day to find my father getting ready to leave the island, and my sister gone. My father, in that one day, sold our boat and the photography equipment, and that was that. No explanation, no goodbye, nothing. My mother never knew what drove my sister to leave home until she tried to commit suicide a year later when she got news my father was returning to the island. Then everything came out.
Dealing with the Man I Called "Daddy"
I was torn with feelings of guilt for how my father helped me and tried to reach out to me during and after university, contrary to what he had done for my siblings. Why help me? Was it guilt he was trying to assuage? I’ll touch here on the fact that he left my mother, never sent her any money, never asked for a divorce - nothing. My mother never spoke about it for many years. She was a very sad woman and lonely.
I felt my father tried to use gifts and money to keep me close to him. I began to want no more of the guilt and stopped answering his phone calls. I was sending blank Birthday and Father’s Day cards with “Hope you are well” in them because I couldn’t force myself to tell him I loved him. Those stopped too.
About five years before he died, I sent "Daddy" a 6 page double sided letter telling him I knew about all the awful things he had done. I wanted an answer as to why. I told him how guilty he had made me feel, giving me so much, and my siblings nothing.
I ended my letter telling him to only contact me if he had a reason to give me for all the things he had done. I never heard from him again. Then, living in Belgium, newly married to my husband after a wedding he had not been invited to, my mother called to tell me my father had shot himself in the head.
He left no reason for his action in writing. He left me nothing. All of his money was split between my siblings, my mother and my nephew. Of course they felt badly about it, but I didn’t really. I chose to believe that this was his way of making amends, of letting me know he had heard me in my letter. To others, it looked like I had been disinherited.
Pieces of the Puzzle
All my life I had assumed the worst of my father. It was only when he died, and I was older and finding the world is not so black and white, that I discovered what his life had been like. As I put together the pieces of his puzzle, the reasons for the way he was, became clearer.
My father was an American. He and his brother had been placed in an orphanage by their mother when he was about 5 years old, during the 1930s. This was a time of depression in the USA and I can only guess at the reasons for her doing so, such as inability to feed and cloth them. It seems my father’s birth father, left when he was young. Eventually my grandmother must have reclaimed them from the orphanage. There were a string of men in her life, some she married, others she didn’t. Some beat my father (and no doubt his mother and brother), some were kind to him. He had a half-brother we never knew about. His mother was knifed for seeing something she wasn’t supposed to and eventually was consumed by lung cancer.
My father grew up with violence, in and out of contact with the mafia that his mother was dating. He helped the bookies transport the money for the illegal betting taking place. He even had a picture of him swimming in Al Capone’s pool with his dog when he was younger. When he was old enough to lie about his age, he joined the navy during WWII and was aboard a ship close enough to see the bombing of Hiroshima in the distance. He was also enlisted in the Korean War and later after being married, shipped out for the Vietnam War. None of this did he ever speak of to any of us. I found pictures he had painted of the gunfire off the back of one of the ships.
When my mother was dying, I found some old letters from my father. I discovered a different aspect of my father that came as a complete surprise. I found the beautiful happy photos of he and my mother when they were first married. I found the love letters he wrote to her when he was away at sea for many months as a merchant marine office on cargo ships. These love letters really woke me up to another side of him. It was clear how he adored my mother. It was clear that he felt she was some kind of saviour for him.
I took these letters to the hospital and reminded my suffering mother how my father had loved her all those years ago. Did she know how much he had needed her? I wanted her to remember that part of him and not what he had turned into.
I see clearly that my father was caught in a vicious circle out of which he didn’t know how to escape. Perhaps he thought marrying my mother was his sanctuary. Having children must have been some kind of trigger back to the violence of the past. My mother always said when she met him, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. I guess this is how love can transform us, if we let it. But sadly, my father couldn’t complete the transformation and my mother, with her own set of issues around how she was raised, was not strong enough to fight for that love, or us.
Do I forgive me father? I would like to say yes. Would I be so ready to forgive if I were my sister or my brothers? I can see in one of my brothers that the cycle has perpetuated with elements of the violence and manipulation of my father in him.
I can only act on who I am, and my experience, and my findings of my father. I choose to have compassion for him. I choose to believe that all the above (and I’m certain there is much I don’t know) influenced the kind of father and husband he became. I didn’t know any of this when I was younger and it messed me up for a while.
My feeling is that I broke the cycle when I stood up to my father that time when I was 14 years old. I broke the cycle again when I wrote the letter to him. The first time I was afraid. The second time, I was filled with guilt and wanting to understand why my life was the way it was, wanting an apology that I never got. When he died, there was no letter for me, no nice pat little answers, no closure. I had to find the closure for myself in becoming aware of who he had been before he was my father. And in that closure came forgiveness and compassion. With it, came letting go, a release, a way to move forward unrestrained by his chains and to seek out any destructive elements of him remaining in me that could hurt my family.
I encourage you to not make assumptions about anyone, particularly your parents. It is not only in Asian cultures that a lot goes unsaid, a lot goes hidden. And it is these unsaid and unhidden parts that we should take into account, before we assume anything. I know it can be difficult.
Perhaps to understand what life was like for our parents before us, can help us to be more compassionate toward them. Perhaps it can help us to understand what is happening in us that is influenced by them, that we need to heal. Perhaps it takes courage and strength through the fear, to stand up to them if need be. Perhaps it takes breaking the cycle that could be unconsciously destroying us, that could wreak havoc in our own families further down the line, if we are not aware of the pain of our parents that becomes ours, their unresolved issues that become ours.
Maybe your parents had to do what they did to break their own cycle of destruction from their parents. Maybe they never broke it. Maybe you are the only hope of breaking it for future generations.