I stood at the bench, and put my hands on his shoulders. “Goodbye, Dad … I won’t be coming back”.
Those of you who know me personally know that my life has not always been the easiest … and from very early on, it’s been that way. Born to parents who had deep psychological problems, the story of my childhood – physical, emotional and mental abuse, shuttling between relatives, too many moves, and torturous humiliations & degradations – could easily fill a book. Or make a great Lifetime TV movie. It’s been about survival from the beginning, and it’s made me strong … sometimes too strong. You see, I don’t cry much. But last Thursday morning, as I drove to the spot where that bench sits, the tears streaming down my face forced me to stop more than once.
In December of 1971, the latest antics of my parents finally caught the attention of the authorities, and soon I found myself safely ensconced with a kind and caring foster family, where I stayed until I graduated high school just a handful of months later. The day I left home was the last time I saw my father until we reunited 32 years later. Though we had many difficulties, we also had some good years early in my life and I still loved him dearly … the reunion was sweet, and so I spent the next 2.5 years visiting every week, even deciding to buy a house and move closer so I could see him more often. Those years were a gift, and I learned much about myself and my family. We laugh, we shared stories, we talked for hours on end. He’d cook for me, and I’d help clean his house. We took long walks by the Susquehanna River … initially strolling leisurely side by side, but in time the walk became too difficult, and as those days became more & more frequent, I’d help navigate his wheelchair. And we sat on The Bench. Only hours after we ‘re-met’ on a hot July afternoon in 2003, I took a photo of him sitting there and soon it became “our” bench. A special place to sit and watch the days go by, blue skies slowly turning into dusky sunsets peppered with bats coming hungry for the buffet of tiny mosquitos.
Though our time together was precious and answered so many questions I had, there were still dozens left lost forever when he passed away just a week after my 51st birthday. Days later, I learned he stayed true to the man I knew as a child, willing everything he owned – aside from a simple family ring he’d given me weeks earlier – to a neighbor, choosing again not to acknowledge my presence in his life legally or obituarily. In those last years together I never got a birthday or Christmas card, he never apologized for the beatings, nor had he ever said he loved me. He taught me early on that I was worthy of little and that real love doesn’t exist in my world … and he concluded his presence in my life with the same lesson. It was a lesson I carried with me most of my adult life … but this journey – this Ride – is opening my heart and eyes with new lessons: I’ve watched love in action among the couples I’ve met, and gingerly ferreted out the differences between what I’d been taught and what is real. And with that comes an allowing of the tears to fall in anger and acknowledgement of the wrongs done, and the betrayal felt.
I’d forgiven my father years ago … what is done is done, and with his own limitations and challenges I knew he could do no better. But as I stood at that bench, hands resting on the shoulders of his ghost, I said goodbye for the last time, and walked away. Catching a glimpse of “our” bench in the mirror as I turned the ignition and shifted the car into gear, I smiled. I had no regrets. I turned the corner, shifted once again, and accelerated into a new day…
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ~ Kierkegaard