Why Did I Not Become My Father?
After dinner, my sister, who is eleven years older, put a box in front of me on my last visit to Miami.
The box contained dozens of photos from my childhood. These included me as an infant, my first day of elementary school, my parents when they were single, aunts, uncles, cousins. In short, a whole life stage that I never gave much thought to once I left home at eighteen.
Also in the box, wrapped in a weathered blue ribbon, was a stack of envelopes addressed to my mother. The postal stamps on these envelopes were from 1933 and 1934. The envelopes contained letters from my father to my mother while they were courting.
As I pulled the first envelope out from under the ribbon, my sister asked me to read the letter out loud. This first letter described the night my father and mother met at a dance in Bayonne, NJ. He told her how beautiful she looked and how much fun they had together. He also said it would have been even more fun if her older sister weren't hanging around all night.
One by one, I removed an envelope from under the ribbon. I blew the envelope open. Unfolded the letter.
Then I read it aloud.
The progression of the letters moved from physical attraction to love. I was impressed with my father's writing. He was clearly gifted in this area. He was a high school graduate and at the time of these letters was 21 years old. He told a great story and had an amazing vocabulary. He even wrote a few fairly complex love poems.
With each letter, a theme emerged. I noticed he was always apologizing. Early in the relationship, it was a half-hearted apology. He said, "I am sorry the way the evening ended. I was wrong and you were wrong. Just as I was right and your were right. Let's just leave it at that."
But as the relationship progressed, he would truly apologize. He would blame himself for drinking a bit too much. He shouldn't have said the things he said.
He was twenty-one when he wrote these letters. His behavior and my mother's behavior didn't change for the rest of their lives. They were clearly attracted to each other. They fell in love. And I saw this love grow as I became an adult and better understood the complexities of marriage. They were married forty-six years the year he died. I was twenty-seven.
Now at sixty-eight I understand a whole lot more about my dad and my mom. I see them as the people they were. The challenges they had with their mothers and fathers. The challenges of the judgment of their siblings. The tough times of cutting a living to support his family. The right decisions he made and the wrong he committed.
The drinking never stopped. His behavior under the influence of alcohol never changed. Some people are boring drunks. Some are happy drunks. Many are mean drunks. He was a mean drunk.
Mean drunks harbor resentments.
These resentments are set free under the influence of alcohol. Instead of talking through things that bother them with the people they love, they learn to stuff what bothers them deep within. They think, "It is best to just not talk about it." Until...the alcohol sets them free. And then the resentments are discussed at high volume, combined with irrational behavior and high emotion. This, of course, shuts the other person down.
This was my experience as a child. I remember at ten years old watching TV at night after my mom went to bed. But when I saw the headlights of my father's car sweep the living room wall, I would quickly turn off the TV and run to bed. I would pretend I was asleep. I didn't want him to start in on me, my sister, or my mom. I just didn't trust him when he was drinking. I loved him but couldn't trust him. This is such a terrible memory.
And now looking back through those photos, I saw the family that surrounded him. They seemed to judge my father. I can't remember one time when I heard them compliment him. This includes my mother. She never complimented him either. How sad to think he grew up in a household like that. Then he lived his whole adult life surrounded by these people. This forced him to seek the company of people who thought he was great. It just so happened they were his drinking buddies.
I didn't begin to understand the motivations behind my father's behavior until I quit drinking. Until I was married for twenty years and had my own children. Instead, I chose to take on the role of the victim. It is only now that I forgive him and give him grace.
How I developed.
When I drank, I was just like my father. I forced down my first beer at fourteen. It was shortly after that, looking back, I was undeniably an alcoholic. Even in high school, one drink was too many, and a thousand wasn't enough. (This is an AA expression.)
One night while drinking and watching TV, I realized Kathy was in our bedroom with the door closed. My three children at the time were in their rooms with their doors closed. And that's when it hit me. I said, maybe even out loud, "You've become your father."
The next day I called an older businessman friend who I heard went to a recovery center. He met me for lunch and took me to my first AA meeting that night.
Looking back, I realize this was the beginning of breaking the cycle of generational sin. AA showed me how to stop drinking one day at a time. AA introduced me to my higher power. My higher power took away my desire for alcohol. And then my higher power led me to Jesus. It was Jesus who gave me the forward looking vision of a broken life. It was Jesus who brought me through recovery, forgave my sins, took away my resentments, healed my marriage, and reunited me in a healthy relationship with my kids.
My father had that opportunity, too. I remember visiting him at my parent's apartment in Bayonne, NJ, when I was 21. A friend of my dad's came by to catch up with my mom and dad. His name was Louie. I can still picture my dad sitting with Louie at their tiny kitchen table. Louie was drinking a coffee. My dad was smoking a Camel cigarette and had a shot of wiskey and a coffee in front of him. It was 10 am.
Louie said, "Marty, you don't have to live this way. Come with me to an AA meeting."
He never did. Like all alcoholics, we can't see living our lives without alcohol. We just can't. We see the damage it is doing to us and to those all around us. But we can't even imagine life without it. So we try to control it every day. And every day, we lose. Alcohol wins. The behavior continues. The broken relationships remain broken. Our lives continue to be destroyed drink by drink.
So why me?
Am I something special that I quit drinking? The short answer is "No."
My question now is, "Why did God give me the ability to see what was coming and then have me call that businessman?"
It wasn't me. It was God.
All I can say is, "Thank you, Jesus. You saved my life, my marriage, and my children."
It was a miracle. Praise be to God!