Absentee Father

Mom and Dad started off well, or so it seemed. She was a nurse. He was a manager for a manufacturing company. They met when he was having a surgical procedure at the hospital. Instantly, they were in love.

The first months of dating were spent with friends at the family farm, a retreat from the city. They shot guns and played guitars after dinner. An old black-and-white photo of Keith and Megan on the Ford tractor looks like a picture of innocence and carefree romance. She didn't drink, and neither did he.

Dad's passion was to pursue a degree in agriculture. However, my grandfather Walter had a different plan: that Keith attend Georgia Tech and become a lawyer like his dad. Keith gave it his best shot, but failed the law classes and became frustrated. Maybe he felt inferior, since my grandfather had been the honor student.

A few years into their marriage, Walter forced my dad to drink. He said, "To be a man, you must be able to drink and hold your liquor" or something along those lines. Mom happened to walk up in time to say, "Please don't do that to him, it makes him sick." But the drinking began and continued for many years.

Dad usually came home about 6 p.m. He might have been drinking already. As soon as he walked into the house, he would turn on the air conditioner in the window above the kitchen sink. Soon, the room would be very cold, and the linoleum floor was like ice under my bare feet. Maybe Dad thought the temperature was just right, since his body was likely hot from the effects of the alcohol. His face was often a reddish color, also a reaction to the drinking.

After dinner, he'd say, "I'm going up to the corner to get a Coke and a pack of cigarettes." We wouldn't see him again until the next evening. I guess he went out to soothe his wounded emotions with vodka.

I got along with Dad pretty well. We enjoyed hunting, fishing and taking care of our dogs. Yes, conflict would sometimes arise, but we remained silent and pretended that there wasn't a problem. As an alcoholic, Dad was neither violent nor physically abusive. He did provide food and shelter, but he was emotionally unavailable.

One day, when I was about 9, Mom found Dad in the basement drinking out of an old milk jug. When she asked, "Why are you drinking out of that milk jug?" he responded with, "What milk jug?" At that point, it became apparent to her that he had a very real problem.

Mom couldn't deal with the relationship any longer. She filed for divorce when I was 13. Her counselor suggested that my brother, Eric, and I attend Alateen, but we didn't care to go. I didn't understand the magnitude of the situation. We lived with Mom, but things changed. One thing I remember in particular is that she quit giving us the "goodnight" kiss and hug. Maybe she was just too depressed to do something like that.

During the months of divorce proceedings, my brother would drive us to Dad's small apartment where we'd play checkers. Dad would say, "Tell Mom that you love me more than you love her, so you can come and live with me." What a confusing request as if I should choose Dad and reject Mom.

Two years later, Dad became ill and moved in with his parents. He retained water, and his feet puffed up, as did his belly. After a few months, Dad was hospitalized, went into a coma, and died. Walter called it "a tragedy." I asked him about the cause of death, and he lied, saying that it was cancer. I learned later that Dad had cirrhosis of the liver, due to the heavy drinking.

Mom remarried, and I left for college with mixed emotions. My self-esteem was swayed by what other people thought of me, and I wondered what I'd missed because Dad wasn't around during my teen years. Who was I? What did people including my family think of me? I medicated the questions and emptiness by smoking dope, drinking, and "getting close" to my girlfriend.

Then, during my freshman year, a friend invited me to a Bible study. I began to see the truth. Soon, I was getting my life right with God, and it was awesome.

I came home, looking for healing for my soul. When I approached my family with questions about my dad, they didn't want to talk about the issues I raised. They'd say, "You're living in the past," "You're judgmental," "You shouldn't feel that way," and "You're just a big ball of feelings walking around waiting to be hurt."

At other times, I would say something unrelated to the alcoholism: something about my feelings, values, opinions or beliefs. If they agreed, I "fit" into the family. But if they disagreed, I would again become a target for insult or sarcasm. It seemed that we couldn't communicate, and all of the strange events in the past had to remain a secret.

Mom used to say, "People perceive life with their own reality." OK then, which reality was right? Theirs or mine? I didn't always have to be right. But was I always wrong if we had a difference of opinion? I began to doubt myself.

Maybe they were the "normal" people, and I was the one who needed help. I was driven to keep our conversations to small talk, so that I wouldn't make myself a target. I became a "yes" man by avoiding the truth in order to keep the peace. This diminished my ability to be open, real and assertive. I was letting my identity be manipulated and defined by how I was treated. I decided to get counseling.

My counselor explained that many people from abusive or addictive families and situations end up without healthy emotional boundaries. Not only did I have unhealthy boundaries, but so did my family members. I began to read about "adult children of alcoholics," dysfunction and codependency.

Through counseling, I also learned that it's possible to trust people, though it takes two people to make a relationship work. But, having a relationship doesn't mean tolerating verbal abuse. I can say, "I don't appreciate the way you're talking to me. If this continues, I will leave and give you a call later." I've learned to set boundaries. Now, for example, when I visit family, I stay at a hotel as an optional retreat.

God has slowly filled the void left by my absentee father. And on my part, I continue to face my evils and be transformed. My family relationships are still a challenge, but I try to maintain them by calling, visiting and giving gifts. It is my great hope that God will also transform my family someday.

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