You Have the Power. You Just Don’t Know It.

I had a rough childhood, with a dad who was overwhelmed with work and financial stress, and a mother overwhelmed with him and four small children. How can I say this gently? Dad was violent. I grew up angry, and even into my late forties I had nightmares about punching him in the face. I’d wake up crying at the futility of it, and so pissed off I wanted to break something.

Around the time I turned fifty, I wrote him a letter saying his brutality and scorched-earth behavior was wrong, that he hurt us terribly and the least he could do now is apologize.

A great silence emanated from his part of town. Three weeks later, my sister told me he was pouting. He assumed I had severed ties, so he would sever ties longer. Yeah, of course he would interpret it that way. He always had to win every argument. So I called him on some business pretext and we talked politely, as if nothing had happened. Then we said goodbye and hung up.

The phone rang.

Him: “I want you to know I got your letter.”

Me, heart pounding: “Okay.”

Him: “And I want you to know I’m not offended.”

Me: (biting back astonishment, which corroded to mirth, which died in bitterness on my tongue). “Great.”

Him: “I’m sorry you had to carry that around all these years.”

Me: “Thank you.”

The End

The nightmares vanished. Our relationship improved overnight. I felt sorry for him, instead of hating him. For the next seven or eight years, until he died suddenly of a stroke in 2008, I was able to love him like a regular dad, to appreciate all the good stuff he did for us. All it took was that one sentence.

Now here’s the quirky thing: a few years later, I wondered, what if I misinterpreted his apology? This man NEVER apologized. What if I heard what I wanted to hear? What if he didn’t mean it the way I took it? What if he really meant he was sorry I was so stupid as to let a little thing like a broken eardrum or bloody nose bother me? Because that would have more been in character.

I’ll never know, so I chose to believe the first interpretation. And that’s what I’m thinking about today, a few days before what would have been my dad’s birthday: sometimes the prison in which we live is self-constructed.

The implications are staggering.

I just finished reading a memoir about a woman who had a rough childhood. Adopted as a toddler by inadequate parents, she was poorly nurtured and emotionally abandoned – and having survived that, she became an adult who was forever doomed to seeing every development in her life through that filter of rejection, of being unloved. Then, in her early sixties, she had an epiphany: she realized her parents had done the best they could, even though they should never have been given a child to raise. This caused her to rethink everything. She wasn’t trapped anymore. My friend was much happier from that point forward, but what a terrible waste.

In her case and in mine, our parents relinquished some information late in life, thereby freeing us. You can accurately say this wasn’t within our control. But what if either one of us had made up some excuse of our own and freed ourselves sooner? I could have told myself Dad was sorry and moved on. She could have done the same. Instead we waited, seething (in my case)  and pathetic (in hers).

To this day I don’t know if I read Dad correctly, but I’m free. I should have done it thirty years earlier. Freedom was within my power to achieve, but I didn’t realize it.

In next Friday’s post, I’ll give you another example of self-entrapment, in this case how older people limit themselves.

(If my words seem less polished than usual, or if you notice any typos, I apologize, but the baby’s waking up and he doesn’t permit multitasking! Stay-at-home moms, I feel ya.)

Comments

  1. says

    Oh boy, don’t get me started. A big part of my long journey with my mother, which I wrote about in my blog for a couple of years (“Taking Care of Mom,” now Connecting Points–Stories Matter), was the past…an alcoholic and sexually and emotionally abusive stepfather, a mother drinking too much and in denial. She learned of the abuse when I was 29, but asked me why I was trying to hurt her. Thirty years later I was her primary person/advocate/manager of her life. Why, I would ask, am I determined not to abandon my mother after she threw me under the bus. But my mother and I were healing journey (the book). It took years to let her off the hook and it took even longer for her to forgive herself. The last time we spoke, however, she spoke words that told me she had forgiven herself. I knew it was closure when I heard the words, but was still shocked when she died two days later…

  2. says

    Lynne, both my parents died without apologizing for their alcoholism or their emotional (and sometimes physical) violence. It was up to us to come to terms with who they were and what they did–or not. It took me several years of struggle to finally accept that while there was never any excuse for what they did, they were flawed human beings, acting out their own internal pain in ways I couldn’t always comprehend. It sounds so trite to say that I’ve made peace with them, and there are still so many questions I’d want to ask them if they were a) alive and b) sober, but I’m no longer consumed with anger toward them. As you say, it’s like a burden is lifted when the anger clears. And maybe that’s the best we can hope for.
    Karen

  3. says

    I just did a couple of posts on my upbringing and your post reminded me of my own confrontation with my stepfather and eerily enough, I believed that he was sorry until years later, after his death. It didn’t improve our relationship, but it did make me stop being angry at him and just focus on getting my life good. I look forward to reading your book – it sounds like an enjoyable fall read.

  4. kate granado says

    My sister was 20 years older than me and her husband terrified me from a very young age. He would climb through windows to search me out and as he came in the iving room window i went out my bedroom window and hid in the bushes until he stumbled to his own home and forgot me in a drunken haze.
    It was not until i was 14 and we went on a road trip to his family home in rual wisconsin and i met his father that i began to understand his torment. His father kept telling me he was going to kill a little bunny rabbit for me to eat for dinner and of course i made all the disgusted 14 year old faces i knew how to make. One afternoon while napping on the screened porch, i felt a heat on my chest and startled, I awoke to a dead rabbit laying on me. I screamed and ran, with his father chasing me holding the dead rabbit by the ears and laughling through a toothless grin, searching for my mother. It was not until the ride back to california while gazing through the window in the back seat of the car, that i realized what a childhood my brother-law must of had. It had shaped him as a man and a tormentor. I dodged him for the next four years until they moved away to another state. Over those 4 years a calmness came over me in my resolve to avoid his hideous advances towards me. And it was not until i was in my twenties that i discoved my calmness was forgivness. He was a lost soul haunted by a nightmare of a father raised in a backwoods home.
    I did not come through unscathed, but i came through with the best of me and it helped me grow into a loving woman i’m proud of today.
    Forgivness sets us free. I am so happy you were able to believe that your fathers words were words of apology. You are a better woman for it.
    thanks for all your words of wisdom.
    And i loved the book, congratulations.
    kate

    • says

      Oh, Kate, what horror. And you are so above it all, and so far past it, to be able to feel sorry for your BIL. I think that’s the greatest ending: to feel compassion. BUT first, we have to feel safe!!! Thank God you were never damaged worse. And thank you for your kind words about Dakota Blues. It really was a labor of love.

  5. says

    Lynne, As I read your story, I thought not only about forgiveness and how liberating it can be but also that it is a conscious choice we make that takes courage and humility. I feel relieved for you that you chose to interpret your father’s response as you did. It freed you and enabled you to reconnect with him in your last years together. Peace of mind is priceless. Thanks for sharing your brave and honest story. You remind us all that one sentence and a quick decision can change our lives for the better- in a heartbeat.

  6. says

    Thank you for sharing your story, Lynne. You are courageous and compassionate. I am fortunate to be able to read your posts, have my left brain working long enough to wrestle these issues best 3 out of 5 pins, blessed to have a spiritual neighbor bring some clarity. I, too, now understand that parents don’t get a manual for child-rearing with the child. Isn’t it FANTASTIC that we’re writers? When I recently discovered I have no memory of the years between 13 and 18, after serial panic attacks, and a desperate search for my analyst’s phone number, light dawned. If I don’t remember being 15, and I’m writing about a 15 year old girl, I can make everything up! Bonus!

  7. Nanci says

    I sometimes feel like it would be a great service to younger people to compile a list of ways to break free from the toxicity of the past. For me it was in my 40 s when a friend pointed out that the conversation I had with mom was so repellent that she was shocked. I had been putting up with huge emotional abuse for my whole life. I went to a therapist and divorced myself from my mother in an empty chair protocol. I wouldn’t say I was totally free, but for the first time I actually recognized the abuse and could tell her that I wasn’t going to talk to her if she spoke that way. I’ve been told that emotional abuse is harder to get over than physical abuse, but it did help a lot.i felt more in control.

    • says

      Nanci, my husband has been a great mentor in this respect. I used to be such a doormat, but he helped me see that looking for some kind of reciprocity in a relationship wasn’t mercenary.

  8. says

    Good for you, Lynne, for achieving your freedom. And you’re right, too often we imprison or entrap ourselves. Very enlightening post.

    • says

      Cyndy, I came to see him in my mind’s eye as that young man in the army picture from when he was about 20, and I know that man wouldn’t know how to apologize without giving up his soul. So that helped.

  9. says

    Lynne, I think you’ve got it right to hang on to what your dad said as an apology. My dad, too, was of that ilk — never apologizing. It’s hard growing up self-confident and at peace when you never hear the words, I’m sorry, or I’m proud of you. But somehow we manage, and whether it’s a trusted friend or a counselor or self-help books, we find the support we need. And we overcome. And that means we don’t need to revisit all that angst or harbor bitter feelings, now that they’re gone. Instead, we forgive what wasn’t done right by us, and we promise ourselves we won’t foist that on OUR kids. Well said, my friend!

  10. says

    Hi Lynne,

    Love your post! I’ve probably carried around a similar resentment for my first husband, and I wonder if that could be the reason I’ve never been able to stay in a relationship with any of the assortment of men who’ve passed through my life. Who knows? It’s also possible I’ve always been too independent and itchy to settle in, too afraid I might lose my SELF, after wrenching it free from that first ugly marriage. But at least it was material for the bad husband in several novels. Always named Ralph.

    I’m half-way through Dakota Blues, enjoying it immensely, while also circling typos, missing words, etc. Most of what I’ve found are unnecessary commas or places that need commas, and I’m not sure you want to bother with that. Does anyone really care about commas? Besides overly anal English teachers. :-)

    One thought I had when Karen is reacting to being fired, feeling lost and adrift, her life unraveling… This is only days after her amazing night with Curt. Wouldn’t she have some thoughts about Curt? I think women do this even when they know better. That desperate hope beyond hope that maybe this new man is the answer. Oh, to be in his arms, immersed in the passion that chases away dark thoughts, at least for those hours.

    Of course, that would mean adding text, and at this point you might not want to go there. BTW – when I got the copy-edited manuscript of HOT WATER, they included instructions for adding text. I never knew that was possible in the production stage, but I’d been reading a book with a Goddess theme, and I actually added a chapter and a half late in the book.

    I hope I’m not out of line here. DAKOTA BLUES is wonderful. Now to get back to it.

    Why don’t I mail it to you when I finish? So you don’t have to wait till I’m back from Louisiana.

    Kathryn

    • says

      Kathryn, the more I get to know you, the more I think it’s just the fact that you’re one of the most independent people I know. You love life, and you chase after it with great zest! The Ralphs wouldn’t stand a chance of keeping you interested.

  11. says

    Lynne
    Great post. Don’t we all wish our ephipanies came earlier in life? Years ago, I was at a inner healing seminar and the speaker explained the power of forgiveness like this: when we choose not to forgive, it is as though we’ve written I Will Not Forgive on a posty note and are holding it on the walls of the past, unable to move on with our lives. But the moment we take the note down in forgiveness, we release ourselves to move on. Keep sharing.

    • says

      Shawn, i like the anecdote. Like a lot of thick-headed peeps, I have a problem with the word “forgive” but if you substitute the phrase “move on” it sort of says it all, doesn’t it?

  12. says

    Lynne, as I have said many times, we have many things in common from our earlier life. I was raised in the same way. It took a lot of self help groups, counseling, and loving people to come to forgiveness prior to my father’s death. That power was released from me in my 30′s.
    Today,I can share my story to help others so they to can be free.

    • says

      Thanks for saying that, Ann. It’s a little hard to reveal such info about my upbringing but I know there are so many who went thru similar things, and succeeded in spite of.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.