It was a Saturday like any other Saturday. My father was in a good mood—too good. My mother eyed him, wondering if something was up. And, of course, something was.
It wasn’t long before their argument began. “You’d better come back in half an hour!” Mom threatened.
“Yeah, yeah! I’m just going down to the hardware store! Stop nagging me!” Dad slammed the door on his way out. An unnatural calm settled over the house: the deathly quiet preceding an explosion.
Daylight waned. Dad came home drunk. “Hi, Beautiful,” he slurred to Mom. He thought he could hoodwink Mom into believing he wasn’t really drunk. In my corner, I prayed that he would. Then there wouldn’t be any yelling. Maybe this once Mom would choose peace.
She didn’t. The full force of two out-of-control adults exploded into the room. Below their rage, I crouched like a wounded animal, trying to keep my two younger brothers occupied. Verbal dirt flew as I silently chanted my hopeless mantra: If he just doesn’t notice me, if he just doesn’t notice me . . .
Suddenly, Dad ran out of verbal ammunition. Looking around, his blurred vision focused on the quiet circle of children. Pointing his work-callused, blackened finger at my shrinking form, he shouted, “And on top of it, I gotta raise another man’s brat!”
This was my four-year-old life as the stepchild of an alcoholic. Three years earlier, Dad had met my mother, a single waitress with an illegitimate baby—me. Unemployed, Dad drifted along aimlessly, easily influenced by the many alcoholics he knew. When my mother got pregnant again, the volatile pair married. Mom set out to control his deep addiction to alcohol.
Mom rigidly monitored Dad’s family activity, hating his brothers and their wives for their alcoholic influence. Dad worked two jobs to support our rapidly expanding family and didn’t drink much during the week. But on Saturday, he snuck down to the neighborhood bar to drink the day away.
I was petrified someone in our family would talk openly about my illegitimacy. Using my secret degradation as an accusation during a drunken argument didn’t count, and I secretly blamed myself for all the family’s problems. An infinite chasm separated me from them.
Dad’s harsh and arbitrary discipline yielded to continuous teasing and deliberate humiliation as I grew older. I cringe to remember his crude jokes about my developing breasts, his refusal to buy me sanitary napkins for my first (and subsequent) periods, his comparisons between me and “a bitch in heat.” Name-calling was common in our house, and my brothers quickly wielded my dad’s little nicknames. As a tall, awkward-looking kid, being called “Ox” and “Homely” bit deeply.
Rebellion and Conversion
It wasn’t long before all the injustice and rage I felt flared up into hatred. I nursed a grudge in my heart and a chip on my shoulder. Insulting Dad unleashed my bottled-up outrage. Often, I goaded him on until he slapped me in frustration. I nicknamed him “Hitler.”
Eventually, my intellect, thoughts and secret emotional life gave me a sense of worth I’d never before possessed. People outside my family seemed to like and enjoy me. This new view of myself fueled my fights with Dad.
In high school, I came to know Christ. This was, in some ways, rebellion against my parents. My stepfather derisively called religious people “church mice,” and our family never attended church. Receiving Christ effectively disassociated me from my stepfather. To tell the truth, my conversion bothered my parents more than my rage and hatred.
After leaving home to attend a nearby college, I joined a church with a deep commitment to discipleship. One couple, Jake and Sarah, supported my struggles through deep feelings of bitterness, anger and rejection. Risking my quick temper, they helped me mature in Christ by confronting me in love.
My parents threw a college graduation party for me—complete with booze and alcoholic relatives. Even though Sarah and Jake had never met my parents before and had no experience with family “drunks,” they seemed peaceful and at ease. “Please God, don’t let anyone insult them,” I prayed desperately.
Dad got drunk in record time, leveling off at the maudlin stage. At that point in his drinking, Dad always got cloyingly affectionate, making guilty declarations of fatherly love for me. This time, I reacted with distaste. It gave me a lot of satisfaction not to assuage his feelings of guilt. Let him stew, I thought.
He wandered off and cornered Jake. I could tell that Dad wasn’t just shooting the breeze. Evidently, their conversation centered on me, since Jake kept glancing my way. “Don’t let Dad humiliate himself—and me!” I prayed angrily. Finally, the party ended and I returned home, exhausted and angry. What did Sarah and Jake think of me?
At church the next day, Jake drew me aside. “I want to talk to you about your father,” he began carefully.
Here it comes, I thought, flinching.
“You need to know something. Your father loves you and needs your approval.” Jake paused. “Pray about it. He needs your forgiveness.”
I responded with dismayed disbelief. My stepfather, who never had a kind thought for me, needed my love and forgiveness? Impossible!
But I began to watch Dad when he was sober. Small, inadequate gestures of remorse for past actions were frequent during my visits home. Before, I’d just brushed them aside, unseeing. But now, I looked beyond my own hurt to see his. An animal-like bewilderment characterized all his relationships. Giving and receiving love remained a mystery to him.
Months passed while I pondered this new idea. I finally had to admit to myself that, even though it was in a warped and twisted way, my stepfather did love me. So I asked God to help me forgive him.
I could have confronted Dad and made a big deal out of “forgiving” him. I could have urged him to attend Alcoholics Anonymous. But I knew that forgiveness on my part came first—without strings.
I worked through layer after layer of anger, bitterness, rejection, unworthiness, mistrust, unforgiveness and hatred. Marrying my husband helped, although it took years to realize that not every man humiliates the women in his family, that not every father crushes his children out of drunken frustration, and to realize my family had a disease called alcoholism.
Since I began my odyssey of forgiveness, God has given me a surprising gift: good memories. I’m free now to remember positive things about my childhood—Dad taking me to the zoo, training our dog to retrieve, playing badminton in the back yard.
When my youngest brother got married, his bachelor party was the talk of the reception. Dad had gotten drunk—profoundly, humiliatingly drunk. At the reception, I noticed that Dad stuck to diet soda.
When the band started to play, Dad slid into the chair next to mine. “What gives?” I asked, pointing to his cola.
“I got up the morning after the bachelor party and took a good, long look at myself,” Dad replied, embarrassed. “I didn’t like what I saw. I was the oldest guy at that party, and I behaved the worst. So I decided I’m not going to drink anymore.”
I congratulated him doubtfully. During the next few months, I prayed for him. A lot. Temptation, I knew, lurked at every turn. But Dad stayed sober.
Over the next several years, Dad changed— and so did our relationship. After much searching, I realized we had several common areas of interest in movies, hobbies and TV shows. Now he calls me. Dad has found ways to show he loves me.
He came to visit me in the hospital when my first child was born. His uneasiness told me Dad feared he wasn’t welcome.
“Come here, Grandpa,” I urged, offering Dad the baby. His big, work-toughened hands picked up my son, holding him gingerly. “We named him William, Dad,” I said softly. “It’s a family name.”
One of Dad’s family names.
In putting away childish things, I now see clearly. The greatest thing is love. And the only road there is called forgiveness.
(originally published in Student Leadership Journal)
Living It Out
An InterVarsity chapter set up a table proxe in the student union for three days. Students passing by were asked, “Is there anything that you couldn’t forgive?” It was a risky question for the InterVarsity students to ask, but it opened doors to engage others in deeper conversations about a central element of the Christian faith. It was also a good promotion for the large group meeting later that week on the topic of forgiveness.