Recently my dad fell ill.
For the people that know me well and know most of my story, the immediate reaction was to ask, “How do we feel about that?”
The answer, surprising no one, was not a simple one.
I’ve not hid the fact that I have PTSD and a tragic backstory that could rival that of any angsty fanfic heroine. I often cite my abusive relationship as the source of a lot of it, because it’s an easy short hand for saying “people in my life tried to break me”. I don’t often go into details beyond that, mostly because your average person doesn’t know what to do with the information. When I’ve delved into the specifics, people panic, or worse, offer pity and treat me like a figurine of thin glass that can only be handled with the utmost care. One of my therapists, after hearing the summary of my life, sat back and announced that she needed a drink, and that was only after the highlights. There is a lot. It’s difficult to process (trust me, I know).
My point is that the abusive relationship is not the beginning of the story (nor the end, but that’s a digression we won’t get into at the moment). The list of people that tried to break me started early, as it started with my dad.
Of late, my soul searching has led me to a number of revelations about my dad, many of them positive. I had done a lot of letting go in recent years, and in the back of my head I had this idea to write a letter to let him know that. I didn’t want to admonish him and demand an apology, nor did I want to offer forgiveness. The tone was something else entirely, and it was one that I knew would be painful to write. Thus, I put it off. I kept waiting for this moment of clarity and surety where I would know that the message I conveyed in the letter was 100% true, with no addendums popping up in the back of my head.
The Universe had other plans, and on July 7th I got news that he had finally fallen ill enough that whatever time was left was by the grace of an uncaring clock. This is it. The last leg. The final stretch. If I didn’t send the letter now, then it would never be sent.
So, I wrote it.
I have described that process, of penning these important words, as knowingly walking into a pyre, burning myself to the ground, and then rising from the cinders to try and discern what remained. All the while knowing that I had been tempered and strengthened, even if I felt covered in ash and scars. It was hard in a way that my writing has never been before, but twice as cathartic because of that.
What I learned from this, and the lesson that I wish to impart by sharing it, is that life has no time for perfection. I put everything off until it was nearly too late because I was waiting for some “finish line” that does not exist. You will never be 100% happy or 100% healed or 100% of anything. Life does not deal in round numbers.
What you can do is take the best of what you have and offer it to the world. Take the best of what’s within your heart and learn to cultivate it to be louder than the rest. Take the best of what you’re given and learn to spin it into a way to chase your dreams. Is that easy? Lord, no. Not even a little bit.
Is it worth it? Always.
Below you will find the letter that I wrote to my dad in its entirety. I did not cut a single thing, because I don’t want to edit myself. I want to share who I am and all the parts of that. I don’t know if I hope it will inspire someone or help someone heal or maybe just be a bit of pretty text.
But if something is important in your heart, you should say it. As soon as you know what it is. So, I’m saying this. To him, to the world, and to anyone willing to listen.
You would have thought that after thinking about writing this for months and then more seriously thinking about it for the past week, I would have had a better way to start it. I know a lot of what I want to put in the middle, a lot of the things I want to say, but the opener? Not a clue. I’m not even sure how to turn what I’m typing now into something sensible enough to get to my point, but I figured that I had to start somewhere and maybe if I started putting words down I’d get to where I wanted to go.
I don’t actually know what you know about me. It occurs to me that the person I am now varies a lot from the person I was, or that I used to be. You may or may not have heard things about it. I don’t know. I’ve never wanted to ask if anyone kept you in the loop. I’ve changed in a lot of ways, though in many others I’ve come full circle to find a lot of what I had within me when I was little that had disappeared as I slogged my way into adulthood.
It’s been a rough road. Some of that roughness came from you. But I’m sure you know that. And that’s not really what this letter is about.
So, I guess I should say things about myself. I…don’t really know how to summarize who I am.
I’m a writer now. That’s a big part of my life, because it’s the thing that most defines me. The thing that I’m most passionate about. I tell stories to try and make people feel things. Sometimes I do it on the page, other times I act it out in different kinds of storytelling. I think I’m good at it, too. People seem to like it, at least.
I wrote a book. I remember I used to have that on my list of life goals as early as I can remember. Sometimes it still surprises me that I got it done. A whole book, full of things that I thought up on my own. I’ve made a whole world with my words, and I feel so proud of myself every time I think about it.
I listen to Pink Floyd and classic rock a lot. It’s my favorite type of music, though I branch out into newer stuff, too. I’ve recently gotten in to Concrete Blonde, that band is pretty bitchin. Oh, and you’ll get a kick out of this, last year I actually went and saw Roger Waters perform in concert. Most of their set was Pink Floyd stuff, and it’s the closest I’ll be able to get to seeing that band live. I didn’t think I would really get the chance to do that, since I was born in the wrong generation for that, so I felt so incredibly lucky to stumble my way onto a ticket. I was so excited that I cried through most of the show, but they were happy tears. Elated tears.
I don’t have time to play as much music as I used to, but someday soon I’d like to get another guitar and pick it back up. I always did really love music, and I miss being able to make it as well as listen to it. I have been making it out to more concerts though. I saw Queen, too. This year I’m going to go to Florence + the Machine and Def Leppard with Journey. I’m pretty excited about those.
I also go hiking a lot. I went on one a few weeks ago that was 8 miles, all the way to the top of a mountain with a waterfall that was so cold I got hypothermia from standing underneath it. It was…I still haven’t found words to explain just how euphoric it was to do that. I was soaked and standing in the spray, laughing at the sky because I had so much joy in my heart that I just couldn’t hold it all in.
On my way up, a thought had passed through my head with a familiar word in it, a word I don’t even use on the regular. I am not even sure why it showed up on that day, popping out of nowhere and then hanging around like a ghost. But I was climbing over some rocks and I thought, “Man, this is a gnarly hike.” I remember that hike we took in the canyon by the dam when I was little, and it got so hot that I almost got a heat stroke and passed out. I know that we used to laugh about it and call it the “gnarly” hike, and we used it as the measuring stick for all other hikes. Ha, kind of ironic that the hike that I thought was gnarly the other day ended up giving me hypothermia. The yin to the yang. Coming full circle, I suppose.
I’ve got some good people in my corner, too. Not all of them are perfect, and I probably don’t trust all of them as much as I should, but there are a few that I’ve clicked with in the kind of way that makes you think you were meant to meet them. I have funny opinions about fate, and I’m not sure I know exactly how it works, but some things in life just feel right. I’ve got a few people that feel like that. They get me, usually without me having to explain me, and I think that’s comforting. I don’t have to hold anything back from them, I’m not afraid of being myself, no matter how raw and unsteady that can get.
It took me a long time to find all these things. Writing, music, hiking, family. I pushed a lot of what I loved away for a very long time, in large part because I was angry at you. But, I suppose I was never very good at being angry, and eventually that passed. As I rediscovered the things I’d lost, I did find myself thinking about you a lot. About how things were. How they started, how they used to be, and how they ended up.
I remember so many things that were lost to me. The places where my childhood memories were held used to be just an empty wasteland in my head, a pile of things I tried to forget because other things got in the way or because they were too painful to remember. After all, I went through a 4-year abusive relationship, so I had plenty of other trauma to occupy my thoughts. The troubles of the child that I was seemed paltry compared to the things that happened later. I’ve come to find, though, that scars like that don’t fade just because you stop looking at them. They all just pile together until you can’t tell where one begins and the next ends. Which pain led to the others? Which one started all the missteps that took me down the dark alleyways of life?
By the time I started picking that pain apart again, I discovered that a lot of my anger had subsided. Without that in the way, I could really come to terms with a few things. Things that were hard to admit but freeing in a lot of ways.
The first thing I realized, I think, was that you were never there.
I’m not talking about physically. You were certainly present for most of my childhood, though I don’t know if that’s worthy of credit or admonishment, all things considered. My meaning is more that the person you were, are, could have been – that person wasn’t there.
I know that life was not kind to you. It was not easy. You perhaps had a road as rough as my own, though I know only a little of it. What I do know is that it made you angry, and I think that anger ate you alive. By the time I met you, by the time I was born and started growing, I don’t think there was much of you left. Just shadows and echoes.
I can admit now, though, that those remnants were something that I loved. When you weren’t drinking, when you were happy, when we were doing things together, those are fond memories. They were important to me, too. I think maybe I understood the rarity to them, like I sensed that there was so little of you left to give away, and that I knew it was a gift to find it when I did.
I think that those moments were the most important in making me who I am today.
I think that a lot of the parts of myself that I like the best might have come from you. I’m quick-witted and curious. I’m stubborn, and anytime somebody tells me not to do something it makes me want to do it even more. I love hiking and nature and science. I love to learn things – almost anything, really. I’m always chasing these crazy ambitions that are as hairbrained as they are lofty, but I never let that deter me. I think Pink Floyd was always one of my favorite bands because it was our favorite band. I write and make things because that was always something that seemed to resonate with you, the making of something to call your own.
When I was at that Roger Waters concert, I had a moment where I almost felt like, if I just turned my head, you might be there. Not the you that I knew, I don’t think. Not the one who was angry and bitter that life had taken so much from you. But the person that you should have gotten to be. The person you were before the anger.
I had that same thought on the hike, the “gnarly” one. I remember coming to a halt because I was struck by the fact that I would never get to go hiking with you again. There was so much distance and years between us now that even if you had been well, it probably would have been impossible. But the sorrow at knowing somewhere in the past we’d already had our final hike struck me anew. I can’t even remember when that hike was, or where it would have been. I only know that it’s gone.
You were never there, and because of that I was robbed of someone who probably should have been my biggest fan and biggest confidant. We should have been as thick as thieves, you and me. Instead I got shadows and echoes, and those only in between the white-hot rage that bled through everything else.
But I am not writing this to make you feel guilty for “not being there”. That’s not the point of this letter any more than recounting the pain between us would be.
I think…I understand that you did your best with what you had. I don’t think that can really excuse all the trauma that was built up over the years, but I can at least understand it a bit better. I understand now that, in your own broken way, you were giving it your all. The anger ate most of you away, but it left enough for me to see that you tried.
What I really want you to understand, though, is that the same thing that happened to you didn’t happen to me.
I’ve had people hurt me all my life. Not just you, there have been many people who dealt more harm to me than love. I’ve been beaten and screamed at and raped and abandoned. I’ve been held responsible by others for things that never could have been my fault. I’ve been promised friendship and then left alone to deal with the wounds those friends caused, struggling to find a reason to it all when it seemed that pain was the only thing life had to give.
Still, despite all of that, I am not angry.
I have a full, wonderful life, and I’m chasing my dreams alongside friends that are more amazing than I ever could have hoped. I have accepted all the pieces of myself, even the bruised ones, and learned to love them. I reach out to others in pain and offer a helping hand whenever I see that they need it. I laugh a lot. I cry tears of joy more often than tears of sadness. I climb to the tops of mountains and still think every tree looks wonderful the whole way up. I still look up at the stars at night and think the whole damn world is amazing.
You see, that anger that ate you alive is a cyclical thing. The people who hurt you were angry at the people that hurt them before. Those people were probably angry at others. It goes on and on, a chain that never ends, a new link forming with each generation.
But I’ve broken that chain. I am the person that would have saved me from all the terrible things that happened to me. I am the person that will save others. Above all that, though, I am not angry.
I wanted you to know that. I wish that I had written this letter sooner, so that I had time to really think things through and make sure my words felt right. I didn’t mean to wait until you were sick. But I’m happy I’m getting the chance to do it now.
Because I thought it was important for you to know that I am not part of the anger cycle. I am not part of that ring of pain. I’m free.
I thought that you deserved to know that.
For whatever it might be worth to you.
with more heart than shadows and echoes,