I was thinking about my dad the other day and I started crying. I don’t remember if I ever cried for him. It seems unlikely. If I did cry, it was out of shock, not sadness. But the other day I cried. I was thinking about how I will never forget the smell of fireworks when I opened the door. His body in an unnatural position. The open and lifeless eyes. And the blood. In those moments, nothing felt real. It couldn’t be real, could it?
I think of the aftermath. Whispering “oh my god oh my god oh my god” over and over again. Telling my mom. Her sobbing and wailing. Waiting for the coroner for ages and having no idea how people are supposed to act in these kinds of situations. Just sitting and shaking while the police milled around. Me standing between my mom and the stairs with my hands over her ears so she wouldn’t see the body bag being brought down. But she heard it anyway.
I was so confused by her reaction. All my life she hated him. She emotionally abused us both. She told me how much she despised him. There was no love. Just…hatred. I didn’t understand her tears. She’d wanted this for years, hadn’t she?
His death made me feel safe for the first time in my life.
As much trauma as he inflicted on me, I didn’t want him to die. No, that’s a lie. I wished him death many times, especially when I was younger. When I got older, I mostly dreamed about taking care of them. I hoped they’d be happy, instead of miserable. I dreamed that a day would go by without my mom’s rage exploding. But that probably would have never happened, even if he lived.
He taught me how to make myself vomit because no one would love a fat girl. He filled the tub with scalding hot water and held me down in it, laughing. His abuse wasn’t the result of alcohol or drugs, he just enjoyed it. He touched me where he shouldn’t have. And I still think it didn’t happen enough times to matter or impact me (bullshit). Though my entire childhood is hazy, I was always afraid of his hands; they made me panic even after things ended.
Things stopped when I was 13. He thought I was asleep but I wasn’t. When his hands started going up under my shirt, I swung at him, screaming, that if he ever touched me again I’d slit his throat and dance in his blood. (I read a lot of vampire books when I was a teenager.) He never touched me again.
Not long after, when I got turned over to the police and then social services, I was so afraid. So afraid they’d break up this horrible, abusive, destructive, family that I called mine. Even then I didn’t want him punished. I’d only opened up to the school counselor because she said I could tell her anything. Not mentioning that “anything” could result in her calling the police.
I was a child when he taught me to hate myself. Self loathing and abuse are my first memories. I never didn’t hate myself. I look at little kids now and think, I never had even five minutes of confidence. Five minutes when I thought I was able to do anything in the whole wide world. Five minutes when I didn’t feel that love was something I had to change for, sacrifice for, beg for.
He talked to himself a lot and wouldn’t stop no matter how much my mom yelled at him. I wondered a lot about his psychological diagnoses. There were none, of course. Both of my parents were severely mentally ill; undiagnosed and unmedicated and I received the brunt of it all.
I never called him "dad." It was a word he never earned.
The last several years, we were cordial. Exchanging pleasantries as we passed each other. It was then that I especially wanted to save them both. Desperate to find a way that I could make them happy. Like my childhood only with more guilt at my failure to do so.
One night, when saying good night through the bedroom door, he said, “I love you.” And I froze because he’d never said that before. A few seconds passed before I whispered back, “I love you too.” For whatever reason, I meant it.
I work on remembering he was mentally ill. But isn’t every abuser? I think giving him an excuse is my way of minimizing what he did to me. What they both did to me.
The pain I felt when he died wasn’t for the father I lost. It was the loss of the father I never had but always wanted. It was the finality of knowing I’d never have that father or that family. What destroyed me was the loss of hope.
I look at his life - the last 30 years of it - and feel badly for him. Like my mom, half of their lives spent miserable and empty. They didn’t deserve that. Then again, neither did I.