As I walked down the hallway towards the hospital room, I knew the next few moments would be difficult. It was not the fact that I was there to say goodbye to my grandmother who was laboring through her final hours on this Earth, for she had lived a good life that was flavored with grace and strength. It wasn’t the familiarity of the hospital, as I had been there to say goodbye to many others before and I understand the grace and grief of death. Nope, it was the fact that “he” would be there, my step-father, D., would be there playing the role of diligent son as he waited for his mother to pass away.
Now do not get me wrong, I do appreciate D. in some profound ways. He provided me shelter and food for eight years of my life, he fathered my wonderful younger sister and in the end, he took care of my mother when she was struggling to raise me and build a life. But, before we roll out the father-of-the-year award nomination push, I also know that he is also the one that beat my ass, terrorized my spirit and taught me what it was like to parent with a posture of fear.
I could not stay more than a few moments in the hospital room. I whispered my goodbye to grandma, kissed her forehead, said a prayer and then I got the hell out of there. After all these years, I am not ready to forgive, make small talk or even be in D.’s presence for any longer than I have to. I HAD thought I was over this crap and that my mind and heart had sufficiently “forgotten” the traumas of my childhood, but, damn, I guess not. Even after all these years, somewhere in this grown man’s body, when I saw him again, there was a part of me that turned five again.
So, yeah, I still have some work to do on this – this blog being a part of it I suppose – but, despite this visceral reaction, I do think that I have one huge thank you to give to him. As I walked into the room, all I could think about was a father who chose fear, violence and intimidation as his parenting method. And as those feelings washed over me, all I could think was, “Someday my kids will walk into a hospital room during a tender time of life, they will see me and their first reactions response will be love, acceptance and tenderness.” For in many ways how I have chosen to father my daughters is framed by what I will NOT be just as much as what I will.
As I have said many times, I believe that our lives are defined by the choices we make and how we respond to the stresses of life. So even in my most frustrating times, I have never even gotten close to raising my hand to my children. I just cannot do it. Sure, I get frustrated and I get angry. I have yelled too loud, have reacted disproportionately and have probably grabbed an arm a little too hard to make a point. But I am also wise enough to know that I have inside of me that place of anger that could too quickly turn me into “him” and I will not give into it. Since my first daughter was born, whenever I have been angry and frustrated, in the back of my mind, there has always been a child’s voice whispering to me, “I will not be like him.”
- I will not be like him . . . the “him” who was able to tell his child to pull down his pants, took a belt, whipped his bare skin and then pretended it was for my own good.
- I will not be like him . . . the “him” that let a five-year-old get out of the car and walk down a busy freeway shoulder to prove a point about who was more stubborn.
- I will not be like him . . . the “him” who, as a grown man, bullied, beat and tried to run over his own brother, all in front of his child.
Yes, as painful as these few instances are to recount, they do act as a constant reminder of who I will never be as a father. In some bizarre twist of life, I owe a great deal to D. for teaching me how to parent by showing me the methods I should avoid. I do not try to understand or justify these circumstances in my life, only to see them as the proverbial “cards” that were dealt my way. I simply trust that in the midst of the greater unfolding of my life, there is God.
Lest you think that I parent only out of my pain, let me also boldly thank those who have helped me understand parenting in ways that give me the strength, courage and the ability to make different choices in my own parental life. For as bad as it ever got with D. I could always count on a community of aunties, uncles and other folks who parented me with compassion, patience, understanding, tenderness, humor and love. These are the traits that I hope won out in both subtle and obvious ways, so to those voices that constantly whisper into my soul and prod me to be the same, thank you, I’m trying.