Friday, April 04, 2008

the way he knows

I was cleaning out a drawer today and found a letter written 91/2 years ago by my father. He was in prison at the time, and we had been through the ups and downs of our relationship so many times I was dizzied by the process. My parents divorced when I was very young, and I was adopted by my mothers second husband when I was 6. I saw him only 2-3 times again throughout my childhood, none of those times good ones, they were colored by the attitudes and emotions of the bitterness and hatred and anger of the divorce. I remember mostly being scared of him. But I was fascinated too, by the man I imagined him to be. In my mind, he was tall, dark and handsome. But more than that, he loved me, and there was no way he ever chose to be gone from our lives this way. I was wrong.

The truth is, he is a short, handsome, man ravaged by a lifetime of alcoholism and drug abuse. He has lived a hard life, violent and abusive, on both the receiving and the giving ends of cruely. He was sold as a little boy to a rich woman who wanted a son. A perfect son. He wasnt it. He was one of those bad boys mothers warn their little girls about. No one warned my mother, by the time she came along, the youngest of 16, no one cared what happened, as long as she didnt need anything from them.

I re-met him when my oldest child was born. I was 19. I remember sitting in his truck, recognizing he was never going to be the daddy I dreamed of, acutely aware that history was being rewritten. He was a drunk, he was poor, he was small and old and washed-up. He was my father. I had spent so many years chasing after him in my mind, building him up into something he never was and would never be. In his tired old truck, in his faded jeans and cowboy boots, no license and no hope...he was all I had. Flannels and red-rimmed washed-out eyes. He was not the father I imagined walking me down the aisle. I choked back shame and embarrassment, and replaced it with a burning resentment..he had CHOSEN this life. He had CHOSEN to leave us. The stories were mostly true. One thing that I knew, even then, he always loved us. It is not the kind of love fathers should have for their kids, it was angry and resentful, the love of owerniship versus parenthood. "I have a fine son and a beautiful daughter." Only, I wasnt beautiful, and at that moment I was feeling even less so. Was I never anything more than a Theriault, as I had been told? The apple doesnt fall far from the tree, and no matter how good I was, how hard I tried, I was always going to be a Theriault in the eyes of the world. It wasnt fair, and yet here was I, judging him. My own father didnt measure up. Maybe I really was a Theriault, after all?

I opened the letter, remembering how well he seemed to love me when all he had was time. Letters full of a father's words came weekly, talking about his grand plans for his life, explaining patiently how he had loved us. Many times, they were words of sorrow, for what he had missed, for how he had treated my mother. His honesty was so blunt, when there was no bottle to hide behind. Some people say you get more truths from a drunk. In his case, the alcohol masks who he really is, it allows anger and resentment and fury to come screaming from his lips. He is never to blame, he takes no responsibility, it is all our imaginations. When he is sober for a long period of time, he faces facts and is much more willing to be rational.

The letter talked about how he was a terrible parent. How he should have fought harder, how he could have done more to show us that he did love us. It talked about letters he had sent to an aunt, who never gave them to us. It talked about his childhood, his dreams, who he had wanted to be. It talked about how poverty and a terrible childhood had robbed him of his own dreams, how he had wanted to BE somebody. It talked about his shame at sitting in a prison, behind steel bars, locked away from the world.

Mostly, the letter talked about his new baby granddaughter, Ciarra Nichole. She had just been born, and he had never seen her. He talked about how it reminded him of my birth, and how ashamed he was that he was behind bars, then, too. He talked about how he had let me down, but how he really wanted to be a good Grandpa, if I would let him. He talked about the other kids, Kristin, Jesse, and Alex...and how he hadnt realized just WHAT he was missing with them. But that hearing Ciarra was born with Down syndrome, how much he realized I would need him. That SHE would need him. He told me he checked out a book through the prison library. Count Us In, it was called. He was impressed with the young men who wrote it. He was surprised, he said, that "retarded people" could write so well, that their words could bring him to tears. That they could reach into his angry old heart and make him wish he could scoop up his new baby granddaughter and be for her the man he wasnt for me. He wanted me to know he would be different, forever, from now on, and that being her Grandpa meant so much to him.

That was 9 years ago. he has seen her maybe three times. He does a good job at talking the talk, but he doesnt know her, nor she him. He got out of prison and found the bottle again, and prescription drugs, the old crowd, and all the reasons to hate. And we have become an afterthought, I suppose. He means well. But his world swallows him whole, and he has enough good excuses to let him get away with it. I love my Dad, but he is not the man I dreamed of. he is not the man HE dreamed of. He is getting old now, and recent events have caused a rift between us once again. I bought his house and land, when the town foreclosed on it. He resisted moving out, even though that was the deal. He would move into Senior Citizen housing, it was safer, less stressful for him. In the end, he moved out angry, resentful, and blaming my mother for all the bad in his life. The circle keeps going round, the merry go round keeps spinning. I jumped off. He is still on it, and he always will be, Im afraid.

I hold on to this letter, nonetheless. It is a reminder of who he would be if the alcohol and drugs disappeared. In the letter, he is the daddy and the grandpa of my dreams. When I am old, maybe I can look back on it and believe again that he was the Daddy I dreamed of, the one who would come riding in and make everything ok. Swoop me up in his arms and make it all better. Dote on his grandchild, the special one, the one who made him cry. The one who like her mother, couldnt change him.


Katrina Stonoff said...

Michelle, this is so sweet and so sad.

The real miracle to me, given the pain and anger in your history, is how you've come to a place of gentleness and peace.

Charissa said...

Michelle, This post about your dad broke my heart. Ditto to what Katrina said.