I’m writing letters this week: to people who will never read them, to my younger self, to you. Because we all have things we wish we could say to someone.
To the “father” who raised my husband:
A few months ago, Chris had to write a letter to you for an assignment in counseling. His therapist asked him to write to you–anything he wanted–and he had two weeks to get it done. He didn’t have to send it. You’d never see it. He could write anything he wanted.
He had nothing to say to you. Absolutely nothing.
It took him two weeks of processing and stewing to write a page with very little actual content. Just empty words.
I was stunned.
You couldn’t think of anything to say to your father? I asked incredulously. I could think of lots of things to say to him.
I don’t have anything to say to him, he said again.
When he returned from his counseling appointment where he read his letter to you, I asked how it went. He didn’t want to talk about it.
He never wants to talk about it. Not right away, anyway. He needs a few days to sit with the work he’s doing before he shares bits and pieces with me. I ask because I don’t want him to think I’m ignoring it. But I know he won’t answer much that first night.
A few nights later, he was ready to talk.
I don’t know what to say to him, because I don’t have any idea what he was supposed to do. My experience as a child was so wrong that I don’t have a frame of reference for what a healthy dad would do at home, with his kids or his family. I don’t even know what to be upset or disappointed about.
I know I’ve already used the word “stunned” in this letter and my English teacher sensibilities tell me to pick another word (maybe yours do too?), but that’s all I’ve got: again, I was stunned.
You let addiction and selfishness and lust ruin your life and your family and your kids. You let it ruin their childhoods, their memories, their innocence. You didn’t do this on your own, I know, but you led the charge.
You used to come to our house drunk when Ellie was a baby. I wasn’t used to being around drunk adults, but Chris was so I followed his lead.
And his lead was to pretend it wasn’t a big deal, to pretend it wasn’t happening, to pretend we didn’t notice.
I fell right into the enabling behavior your house ran on. Except when you left, I wasn’t quiet about it. You came over smelling of half a bottle of cologne with a side of cigarettes and alcohol and we had to wash our baby, her blankets, and Febreeze the couch once you were gone. You left our house, and we went into overdrive to wipe away the stink you left behind.
We’re still doing that. We’re still doing that every single day.
Raising children with someone who didn’t have a healthy childhood is hard. Chris learned from you that when things get hard, you should tune out with alcohol and movies. You shouldn’t discuss or address issues, you should hide them. You should show up to family functions with fake stories and armor to hide the wounds and scars. You should avoid, numb, lie, and run.
Your son shouldn’t have had to come home from school worried about what he would find: sometimes you naked and blackout drunk on the garage floor, sometimes crying and depressed, sometimes with the thought in the back of his mind that you’d killed yourself during the school day. Your son should not have been punished by having food or money for food taken away. Your son shouldn’t have been relied on to drive siblings to games and practices well before he had a license because you were too busy drinking.
You were too selfish, too consumed by your addictions, to see your children.
You tried your best to send Chris off into adulthood ill-equipped and with a heavy dose of low self-esteem, depression, and co-dependency. You and your wife healed no wounds of your own so you passed all of them on to your children. Hard work was too hard for you so you did not do it.
Thankfully, a lot of people love your son more than you do. (Nothing you did was loving; don’t believe the lie you want to tell yourself that any of his success or goodness now is a result of anything you did.) Chris left the toxic influence of his parents and found new parents in a work family, a church family, and the families of friends.
The people God put in your son’s life to step up when you were unable to is an overwhelming gift full of grace and compassion.
Today Chris turns 36. He is patient and loving, smart and funny. He is a good provider for our family. He is reliable and steady in his work ethic. He can remodel a kitchen or a bathroom like a professional. He can rewire a room, fix a car, or build anything he has a picture of. He tucks his daughters in every night with prayer and a back scratch. He makes their lunches, takes them on hikes, and teaches them about music and animals. He shows up to their games, cheers them on no matter what, and joins all the daddy/daughter competitions and camp outs. He’s navigating daughters who are getting older with increased hugs and I love yous.
He’s stopping dads he admires for advice, observing other families, asking for help. He has been clean and sober for almost two years, and he is working hard to rebuild a marriage addiction destroyed. (Actually, a better way of putting that would be addiction didn’t allow a marriage to be built correctly the first time so we’re starting from scratch.)
I would be lying if I told you your absence doesn’t hurt him. Everyone wants their dad to love them, show interest in them, care about them, to be proud of them.
That is not an invitation to come back. The need doesn’t trump the reality which is you are dangerous to him and our family. Even before he stopped answering or returning your calls, you had stopped asking about our kids or our lives. Your phone conversations were full of stories of people Chris didn’t know, about your life, about how great you were. You stopped asking about Chris and our kids or leaving room for anything but your voice some time in 2016. It destroyed Chris to talk to you. After you’d hang up, he would cry. It took days to recover from your phone calls.
We don’t need anymore reminders about your selfishness. He has a childhood full of examples, enough to carry him through the rest of his life.
I realize so much of the story I learned about you when I started dating your son was wrong. Your family–good or bad–still agreed to present the manipulated story of your demise (and theirs) to everyone they met. You were the bad guy, the drunk, and everyone else was your victim. I know that’s not true. I know that it takes two parents to run the dangerous household you were a part of. I know it takes a really unhealthy partner to keep things together that long. I know that’s not love. I know choosing your marriage over your children’s safety and security isn’t love or loyalty, it is fear and mental illness. And I know you’re a victim in a lot of ways too. But victims grow up to be adults who have to take responsibility for their actions.
You probably won’t ever do that.
The good news for Chris and our family is forgiveness doesn’t have anything to do with you. You don’t have to be sorry. You don’t have to be sober. You don’t have to change. You don’t even have to be alive. He can heal your damage completely separate from you. He can free himself of your legacy, of your illness, of your sin without involving you in any of it. You had plenty of time to do that for yourself and you chose not to.
Now he’s doing it without you.