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Hopes and Dreams Stories of Connection Stories of Reflection

The Hopeful Way

James Warren July 23, 2023
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I have been afraid to share this story for some time, but now I know that means that I must, because we are not bound by our terrible past; we are not constrained by our ancestors’ most painful journeys, rather we can be informed by them, and, hopefully, inspired by them. The prediction is not always accurate, as there is always hope to be had, even when there is no trace of it at the moment. And sometimes, what we hope for, becomes our new reality.

In my experience, when we have loved people who have done very bad things, we struggle to make sense of their lives as a whole. Over time, we try to come to terms with how we feel about loving people who created trauma in our lives, who inflicted pain on us. We wrestle with whether we ought to continue loving them at all, if in fact “detaching with love” or “loving from a distance” is truly possible. Sometimes, these people themselves endured very bad things in their lives, and maybe they suffered from self-destruction as much as from the pain inflicted on them. Sometimes, they struggled and at other times they strived to be better. It would not be a stretch to refer to their lives – and our relationships with them – as complex. 

Given that, I guess it’s fair to say my father was complex. Some might even refer to his life – and certainly my relationship with him – as hopeless.

According to my mother, he had a family before ours, who we know nothing about other than that they existed. I understand that I have two half-sisters out there somewhere. Because this memory is embedded in my childhood, I constantly think of these two women as being around 20 years old, because I think I learned about them when I was 8 or 9, and I believe they were 10+ years older than my sister and me. The truth is, if they actually exist and are still alive, they are most likely in their sixties today. I have no idea what they look like, and I could be talking to them and have no idea we are related.

I don’t know why we never knew them, but I have so many questions. Were they avoiding him? Was he avoiding them? Were they avoiding us? Did they even know about us? Did they ever contact him or vice versa? This is hard for me to relate to, because the idea of my kids not knowing one another at all seems very non-family to me. 

Perhaps some of the reasons I don’t know this part of my family is because my father was the conduit, and all of his complexities made it difficult, even impossible, for all of us to connect.

My father was abusive. My father was a gambler. My father was an alcoholic. Because of these things, he lost his family and his career, and I believe his life ended prematurely due to his alcoholism. 

He died when I was 18, and at the time of his death, six years had already passed since I had seen him. He was present in my life for less than a quarter of it so far, and yet his impact and influence are felt every day, and not always for the better. I don’t even know what parts about him are true any more; there is so little to go on these days, so little historical record, I am left to my memory, my sister’s memory, and our fragments of what our mother told us. As time passes, the details and the textures of positive memories continue to fade, too. 

Strangely, the pain seems to linger just a bit longer than the happiness. That could just be how I’m wired; or that could be because there was in fact more pain than joy with my Dad.

I was four or five when we lived at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York. My dad was a doctor at the VA hospital, and a captain in the army. On this night, he was drunk on Scotch whisky – Cutty Sark was his brand and I can still see it in the dining room quite clearly now. On this particular occasion, the MPs – military police – had been called to our home. I don’t know if my mother called them or a neighbor did, but there they were at the front door, because my father had hit my mother and threatened her life. The MPs were there to assess the situation and apparently give my mother safe passage out of and away from the home until my father “cooled off.” 

The most terrifying moment of that evening wasn’t watching my father being drunk and abusive. It was the MPs asking my sister and me who we wanted to go with that night. I was afraid of my father, so I said, “Daddy.” My sister was afraid of my father so she said, “Mommy.” I felt disloyal. My father cussed out my mother and my sister and slammed the door behind them as the MPs led them away. I just remember being so scared, confused and alone that night, fitfully falling asleep and praying for morning so I could see my mother and sister again. 

One time, in Tulsa, Oklahoma when we were out of school — it wasn’t summer break, we just weren’t going to school and I was doing something remotely approaching home schooling — my father was living with us again, but things were rough and tense. I remember he was working with me on some math, and I wasn’t getting it. I think he was already drunk. I could tell he was getting angry and I was trying but I still couldn’t get it. He started yelling at me. I guess that was the day my Mom had enough. She came into the room and told him to stop. He cussed her out and began making menacing moves, towards her and me. His anger rose and I could tell she feared for my safety. She grabbed him by the hair. I knew it was over then. By now, everyone is screaming: my mother, my father, my sister and me; I’m actually yelling at her to let him go, because I know what is about to happen next. 

For a few seconds, she had the upper hand and he screeched and screamed from having his hair pulled. When he broke free, he pulled back so far and then swung on her with all his might, and then he was on her, raining blows. We didn’t know what to do; my mother’s friend was living with us, and she ran into the room pleading with him to stop. After a few more moments and a couple more punches, he finally did stop. And all I remember was my mother holding ice or something to her face, the police coming again, and my father getting taken away. I think that was the last time I saw him in person, until his funeral six years later.

How does a child bear so much hurt and anger, bearing witness to such behavior, escape from the emotional dungeon of loving and hating one’s father? The answer is that sometimes we don’t. And yet, there is still a path that each of us has in front of us, there are still choices to be made, memories to face and let fade, and eventually, when we come to the fork in the road, we decide to go one way or another, on our own. Only very recently have I realized how much of my life has been spent shaking my fists at God, at the universe, at these moments in my past. Full of anger at my inability to replace those experiences with kinder memories. Trauma will do that. It will make a person want to delete whole seasons of their life, just to get rid of a handful of indescribably painful memories.  

The reality for me is that coming to terms with my own path has taken me a while. Learning to separate what brought me to the earlier stages of my journey, from what steps I took on my own later in that journey, from the choices before me today… well, this is a lifelong lesson for me. I saw at an early age what a father can do to his family and I didn’t want to be that. And yet, I found myself grappling with some of his same tendencies – at least on some level, if not fully manifested. Was this my emotional inheritance? Were his behavior and his demons encoded in my emotional DNA? While I neither gambled nor physically abused, I knew I struggled with anger and resentment, and this showed up in ways that brought me to the brink of self-destruction more than once. It also impacted my relationships, over and over and over again. I used my words to hurt the people I loved the most. I was controlling and tried way too hard to impose my will on my older sons especially during their teenage years, under the delusion that this was my job (and they should be grateful because at least they had me, and after all, I was doing my best to figure this fatherhood thing out, without him). I made decisions that, were it not for grace, could have permanently damaged my family, my career, and myself. 

These tendencies cropped up so much so that there were times in adulthood, when I looked around at my life, found myself apart from my family, living on the edge, struggling in every aspect of life, and I wondered, have I just become a slightly more refined version of my father? Or was there a better way for me? I can call it nothing other than hope that I chose the path I did, that I saw enough of what I didn’t want to become in my father, that even though I have stumbled often, fallen a few times, and failed,  I did choose a better way. I chose to hope, until my reality could catch up.

Maybe that’s why I am so hopeful today, despite what I see in the world, what I see in society and in our communities. Perhaps it’s something in these earlier struggles, these earlier decisions to choose hope over despair that have rooted in me a sense that we can live beyond what was defined for us, by our pasts. When our ancestors’ hopes and dreams for us were visions of us thriving, then yes, by all means, let us manifest their hope for us. But what of the person, the family, the community, the society, whose past seems to hold very little hope for a better tomorrow? What do we hang our hope onto, then? 

I believe the answer is that we hope and dream, for better hopes and dreams. And every day we get up, we do something, anything, to make those hopes and dreams come true. Surely, if I can learn to live, not defined by my father’s person, but informed by his fatherhood, if I can go from being the son of a man who was not a great father in many respects, to a father who has failed miserably, to a man who is trying to be a better father every day, then truly there is hope for all of us! If I can give MYSELF enough grace and hope to accomplish that journey, then surely I can give someone else enough grace and hope to accomplish theirs, and you can, too. And I don’t think I am alone in this at all. I think this is true for our families, our communities and our societies. 

Perhaps the source OF our collective hope, might be our choice TO collectively hope.

Let us Sojourn, America.

 

Related Sojourn, America essays and stories:
Sojourn, America: An Introduction
Meet Me In The Middle
Jump the Broom
Winter in Moscow

Image credit: istockphoto.com/Boonyachoat

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1 Comments

  1. Lucien Roberts July 27, 2023

    Courageous and beautiful. Writing can be therapeutic and often is the only way I can dig deep enough to find meaning and a silver lining. It sure sounds like you have tapped a wellspring of hope from the depths of despair.

    Reply

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