I was born into chaos of sorts. It was a fine middle-class family. There was no lack of stability. When I was old enough to know where I was, I was living on Chicago’s South Side in a nice three story house. the bedrooms were on the second floor where I shared a room with my older brother. The maid lived in the next room over. My older sisters lived in the attic at that time. The attic seemed ok with its own bathroom.
The neighborhood was full of nice homes filled with professionals and entrepreneurs and their families. The elm trees created a tunnel over each street. My dad a college grad, had stepped into the management role in the family business, a retail lumber yard. We had membership in a country club and we never wanted for clean clothes and good food. All the children in our family went to religious school at the local synagogue.
I never liked my father. I cannot recall a childhood moment where I liked him. I think if I ever liked him it was just 2 weeks and some days out of each year. The 2 weeks represents our family vacation. He rarely hit me on vacation and he let me read comic books for those 2 weeks, something I was never allowed to do at home.
The few days out of the year I did not hate him were the visits to Mitchell’s Ice Cream parlor. For some peculiar reason he didn’t treat me badly when we went there for milk shakes. It was a time when he, my brother and I would shoot spitballs at each other and laugh. Otherwise, I have no fond memories of my dad. I thought he was evil and mean. He didn’t beat me badly, just frequently. My earliest memories were of being afraid of him. The list of perceived harms would detract now from my tome because it is a lengthy undertaking. Suffice to say that my earliest dreams were of killing him. Those dreams finally took concrete shape when I was 10 and in the 6th or 7th grade.
I think it was early fall. I remember I was ordered to stay in the house all day on Saturday and read some periodicals my dad had chosen for me to read and write reports on. I recall after several hours, looking out the window in the afternoon and seeing kids gathered in front of my neighbor Bobby’s house, playing running bases. I loved playing that. I was relatively fast and enjoyed being a runner.
I decided to sneak out and play. My parents were not home yet and I guess I didn’t expect them soon. But as luck would have it, I was not outside long before I saw my dad’s black Cadillac turn the corner a block away. I ran like hell back to my house and threw myself into my seat where I had been working. I tried to look nonchalant, and hoped I hadn’t been seen. But we wouldn’t have much of a story if that were true. He pulled up the driveway and entered the house. I am not sure exactly what was said or in what order. But I remember being taken to my bedroom and being whooped. I remember the belt repeatedly rising and falling across my arms and legs. I remember the hate pouring out of my eyes trying to burn him alive. When he was done, he stopped and went to his bedroom.
Shortly, he called me to his room. He told me to go downstairs and get him a cup of tea. This was familiar territory because I was treated as his personal valet. Part of our daily ritual was for me to get him everything he needed to take a shower, 2 towels and a washcloth. Then I was summoned after his shower to bring him his underwear and slippers. Then I was ordered to get him something from the kitchen while he lounged in bed before his dinner. Then I was called to the dinner table to turn on the television and adjust the channel and antennae until he had what he wanted. Getting him tea was a long established practice by age 10.
This time I deviated from routine after I heated the water and poured it into a cup with a Lipton tea bag. On my way back upstairs to deliver it, I stopped at the downstairs bathroom and looked in the cabinet. I desperately hoped to find a substance with skull and cross bones to mix into the cup. I took every bottle out that I thought might be helpful. Mercurochrome, baby oil, Bactine and so forth. Nothing! So I defaulted to using something that said “do not take internally”. It was the old style 6-12 liquid insect repellant.
Suffice to say, my attempt to kill him that day didn’t succeed. He lived many more years. During many of those years I still hoped to cause his death. As I matured into my 30s, I went through drug treatment. I began to pray for him and for me. I prayed for relief from the hate. I prayed that he would defeat his heart disease and then his cancer. I prayed for his good health. I also prayed that he would die during his heart operation. I was torn between love and hate. This differed from my youth when I felt no love and no conflict.
I spent years in therapy and would often relate the sickness I felt being his son. At various times I worked for him in the family business and tried to get his approval and hated that I couldn’t. I hated that I cared. I made a valiant effort to turn my back on anything he had to offer I began the path to independence starting at age 15. I returned to the family business for short periods only when I thought it was on my terms. It never was.
I paid for my college degree. I bought my own house and car. I asked for nothing. When I did ask, not surprisingly, his response was always that I must accept his terms. So I would brush aside any help. Fuck him.
It came to pass that he offered to pay for law school when I was in my early thirties and I was still a social worker. I was attracted to the possibility of helping people and making a living. But I accepted only after my therapist pointed out that I was so dependent on not taking his help that it was no different than if I took his help. He pointed out that I was controlled either way. I knew it was true when I heard it. So I surrendered and went to law school and became a lawyer. This was possible because my family foot the bill and because I was active in a 12 step program. One gave me financial support and the other gave me psychological support.
My dad became more docile with age. He was thrilled to have me pursue lawyering. He encouraged and supported my efforts any way he could. And when I had my law license he did what he could to get me business. He invited me to join his club and took me golfing with him often. We had a relatively enjoyable relationship going. And then he died.
Now to the point of all of this. I struggled most of my life with residual hostility towards my father. Despite therapy, 12 step recovery and maturity, I could never quite let him off the hook. I always wondered how a man like him, obviously intelligent, liberal with hints of compassion could have inflicted such suffering on his own child. Intellectually I trusted that it was not personal. Clearly he didn’t live for the purpose of tormenting me. I knew he treated others badly; I was not his only victim. But why? How come he could give himself permission to repeatedly hurt me and deprive me of the joy of childhood?
And the beginnings of an answer came to me on one of my many mountain hikes. Although he had already passed, that day I truly accepted that he had mental problems and demons I would never fathom. He had an abusive mom and he was simply incapable of rising above his own personal dramas and despair. What and how he perceived his life would never be accessible to me. He had never shared and all I had were third party anecdotes about his early life. It was the beginning of the final phase of the journey to redemption. The rest came through the Buddhist practice of metta, meaning loving/kindness. I became a practioner and student of meditation. I ordained as a monk for several months. During that time I lived in Arizona in a Buddhist temple amongst life-long monastics from Thailand.
So a couple of years after that initial realization that I could never understand him, I arrived at a place of forgiveness. I will never forget that moment. I suddenly wished in my heart that I could have taken his suffering from him for just one day. I wished that he could have had one day free from any and all spiritual suffering. I arrived at a place in my heart and soul where I would be willing to have suffered in his place to give him that gift.
In that moment the anger dissolved after 55 years. It has never returned. I am sorry that any living being has suffering emanating from any cause. What a marvelous moment when I realized that I was capable of letting go. What a great thing to have lifted the yoke of resentment and breathed pure fresh air. Untainted by hate or resentment, I felt better about him and better about myself. Over the years I have heard the lament of many a person over the abuse, misuse and pain they have had inflicted upon them. I know they generally cannot believe me when I tell them there is a better way of life, life free of resentments. I teach others how to reflect on loving/kindness in hopes that someday they will experience the loss of their anger and hostilities. Reflecting on Loving kindness for me brought down a lifelong wall of hostility and animosity. It freed me to turn my efforts to helping others in my life who, while I didn’t have the same history as them, I still had the same result. I still bath in hatred and hostility at times. Sometimes it seems I take out a resentment and nurture it and feed it until it is as strong as a bull. But I can now reflect on my experience with my dad and realize that I am capable of overcoming my negative thoughts and emotions.