**Warning, there may be some graphic language used in this piece. This article is modified from an upcoming book by Fr. Nelan that deals with growing through adversity. The language used conveys a particular style of writing and emotion.
My father was born on the 22nd of December in 1930 and was every bit the product of his own upbringing – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. He was born in Northern Michigan of an Irish immigrant family, but raised on the other side of the lochs – you know, over dat der place in Canada, eh? Truth be told? He was a prick, and an abusive one at that, but as I understand it, so too was his own father.
I never met my grandfather and dad always talked around him rather than about him, but I got the feeling theirs was not a good relationship either. I did once hear my father say he respected my grandfather. Again, I don’t know much
Respect. It is odd; as I look back on my childhood I realize I never heard my father say he loved his parents. I mean, I knew he loved them, especially my Grandma, but not hearing the words kind of says it all. In fact, I do not recall ever hearing my father talk in terms of love. It was always respect or pride and even then, seldom if ever did he use those words. I heard him repeat the shortened form, “you too”, and he would occasionally use the word love when responding to my mother, but otherwise it just wasn’t a part of his vocabulary.
I used to lay awake at night wondering if my grandfather treated my father the same way my father treated my brother and I; with a belt in one hand and an attitude in the other. He had to have learned it somewhere. That is, after all, how my brother learned it. I on the other hand wanted nothing what-so-ever to do with it! Damn, I am getting ahead of myself. Where was I? Oh yeah, I wonder if my father ever heard his father say he loved him.
Dad, as I am sure his father did, believed corporal punishment was the only way to solve the problem of unruly children. I am equally sure he believed intimidation was an effective parenting technique and empowerment tool. Do not get me wrong, growing up I knew exactly what buttons to push and when to push them – and believe you me I would push those buttons whenever I could. I am not trying to squirm my way out of accepting some responsibility, but the resulting punishment was often way out of proportion, “Pull ‘em down and lean over the bed.” Whack! Whack! “Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about.” Whack! “Sorry, was that the buckle?” Whack! Whack! Whack! “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” Cabrón… How the hell he EVER thought that was true is beyond me.
Often, whoever received dad’s form of justice was unable to sit down for several hours after, and in one case my brother bled through his underwear for days. We never said anything to our teachers or pastors, partly I think because we didn’t know we could, but also I think we never did out of a deep and lingering fear for what might happen if dad ever found out we tattled. He had a thing for that too. Punishments for tattling were always worse.
Despite everything I loved and – respected – him. He was my father, after all, and despite his abusive punishments he was really a great guy. He would give the shirt off his back to help someone out. My entire core being was developed by a man who showed me it was okay to not fit neatly into molds and to break perceived boundaries and limitations based on skin color – even though he made it perfectly well known that he did not much care for certain skin colors. He would still help anyone out regardless of his personal feelings for them.
My father’s legacy to my brother and I was that he gave up his family’s Irish culture to honor my mothers. In that way my brother and I would be raised with a better appreciation for diversity. It was important to him that we see life through the eyes of another culture to open our minds and impart some sense of social responsibility. At the time, to me anyway, it didn’t matter that he was a prick, it only mattered that he provided me with what I needed to survive.
He left his Irish roots to celebrate my mother’s Mexican heritage.
Despite all he was, what I remember most about my experiences with my father was the last couple years before his death. He had been fighting cancer for six or so years and vowed to win his fight. I think he knew his end was drawing near because he did the same thing I am doing now – he reflected on his life. The difference, though, is that he was making peace with those he wronged so that he could face his Maker knowing he did what he could to make amends.
Dad and I never really got along and there was a period of time, about five years, where he and I had no contact. For five long years we never spoke or wrote to one another. It was a sort of peace accord – a treaty of sorts which kept us both safe and secure. I don’t remember exactly how or when we started talking again, but a different type of treaty eventually developed and one day we found ourselves on the same side of a deep dividing line.
In the last year of his life I visited as often as I could and we seemed to get along well. We were sort of friends and occasionally enjoyed each others company. Shortly before he died, my father gave me the greatest gift a child could ever receive – I got a second chance at having a father. I got to see a different side to him than when I was growing up.
During one of my many visits home, I drove him to his business appointments for the day. He still managed the family painting business he created when we came back to the United States. He managed it until the day he died; he loved helping new customers choose colors and deliver quality work. When working with his customers, he would create a draft contract on the spot, by hand, which people loved. But that particular day no customers were around; he was inspecting a recently completed job. That day our relationship moved to a level I never expected.
It was lunch time and dad had difficulty with his feeding tube so lunches were longer than usual and always private. We sat across the room from one another at a sort of safe distance.
As I said, that day I’ll never forget. For some reason he chose that day to confide in me his secret pains and sorrows for the way he treated my brother and I when we were growing up. As he spoke, so quietly and deliberately. I heard foreign words; my vision blurred and my hands shook. I tried to close my eyes tight to prevent the torrents of rain falling from my eyes, but doing so would have alerted my father to the angst building within me.
I was shocked by what I was hearing. I sat there quietly choking on my sandwich; I just didn’t know how to respond or what to say so I just sat there quietly pretending the tears didn’t exist and allowing him to regurgitate what had been building up inside him for years. As he spoke, I would from time to time turn away to wipe my eyes while pretending to fuss with the pillow behind my back. Occasionally I would respond with an, “uh hum” or an “I see.” They were purr responses, but I knew what he was saying was important for his own well-being. I didn’t want him to see the fresh strokes he was painting into old wounds, but these were different. They weren’t creating scars, they were mending them.
He continued his confession and apologies, and at one point he even mentioned it was the only way he knew to raise children. My suspicions were correct – his father did the same thing to him.
Sleepless nights. I remember him saying something about not being able to sleep on the nights he punished us. I just sat there slowly eating that stupid sandwich. The bologna was tasting foul, but I had to keep going.
Every now and then he too turned away, not because of tears, but because of his feeding tube. He had to inject his food down a tube which led straight to his stomach. After every injection he had to clean it with water. Then he would spray a viscous liquid in his mouth to help him swallow. His cancer had destroyed much of his throat and mouth.
When he finished, what seemed like hours had passed without a single word. Finally, he looked me squarely in the eyes and asked me what I was thinking. It took me a moment or two to respond. In those couple moments I looked to the other side of the room and saw my father not as I had remembered from so many years ago, but as he truly was as that moment. I saw the side of his sunken and deteriorated neck, as well as the scar where the radium implants had been. I saw the thin frail man where once a proud and robust individual once sat. I saw a man falling over the precipice of life hurtling towards death. I saw a scared frail human being – not some big ugly monster. But most important, I saw a father who genuinely cared for his child. For the first time in my life – I was silent.
Finally, I looked back into his distant and graying eyes I told him I understood, and then I began to speak just as slowly and just as deliberately as he did. I didn’t bring up old wounds to beat him mercilessly, I instead told him about my life. I shared with him things I had never shared with anyone and I opened up to this man I never knew. I shared with him the man I had become and when I finished I told him I owed it all to him. My final words – I told him that forgave him and that I loved him so very much.
As I said the words he noticeably relaxed, his chest heaved as he sighed, and for the first time in my life I saw a tear on my father’s cheek.
I knew I had reached out to him when he needed me most. In that moment I understood my father. I saw him for who he truly was. He was finally at peace. He was the “dad” I never had growing up.
As we gathered our things and before continuing to other appointments, he confided in me that he never told my mother he was keeping an eye on me from a distance. She would never have wanted the neighbors to find out. I laughed out loud and he smiled. It was a strange day. There were relatively few clouds and the streets seemed less crowded. The colors in the sky seemed different. Life was different from that day forward.
We spent a lot of time together after that day; new friends often do. I’ll never forget the very last words my father ever spoke to me before I returned to my own home in another state. They were words every boy longs to hear from his father. Never in my life did I think I would ever hear those liberating syllables, but that last day of my final trip to see him they magically made their way into the world without warning.
“I am proud of you Kenny.”
My knees gave out as I collapsed into his arms. I cried like I had never cried before – and he let me. In that one moment, one I will cherish all my life, the man in whose arms I found solace was not just my dad, but was now my liberator.
I will forever cherish those final moments with my father and when I look back on it all, I focus on the healing we shared, not the pain. It is true what they say about forgiveness – it really can heal all.
The only thing for which I am truly sorry is that my brother Joseph was not there. He needed those words as much as me.
My father died shortly thereafter. He beat the cancer, but died of complications from pneumonia. It was spring – a new beginning. How fitting. I miss him.
It was a new beginning – strange to hear those words associated with death and dying, but they are as true as this story about a period of time in my life. I share it with you not because I seek some sort of twisted solace or validation, but because I wish to convey that if we close the door completely on our past or on people who have come and gone in our lives, we potentially miss the chance to greatly change our lives in ways we could never understand.
Does that mean we open ourselves to pain and sorrow, abuse and condemnation? No. We must still protect ourselves and our families from what we know to be painful experiences. But it does mean we let go of hatred, anger, and pain in our hearts.
My father gave me a new beginning that day so long ago. He offered me hope that my own life could be so much more than my limited understanding of my own abusive upbringing. He helped me move past the pain into a sacred life celebration – to see the positive in all things no matter how much pain or despair; there is always a silver lining.
Beginnings can come from endings if we decide, yes – DECIDE – to allow ourselves to move beyond our anger and/or pain. We must choose to see things anew and wander sacredly through our experiences. We must choose to find the peace in penance and the gratification in opening our lives to diversity.
You are incredible beings of light and love. Our God has gifted you with greatness – choose to change your endings into new beginnings.
The Rev. Father Kenneth Nelan is the pastor of the Sacred Wandering Pastoral Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin. He is also the celebrant of the Sunday Mass broadcast on Facebook.