It has always been difficult for me to speak honestly about my childhood. As I have grown in faith and have now had many years to make my own mistakes, it seems almost unfair to talk about some of the more painful memories of my distant past. Most of them involve the actions or attitudes of my parents, and I do not ever want to move into a place of bitterness or judgment. Lord knows I have seen the magnitude of my own selfishness and sin, and that we are all on even ground as we kneel before the cross. If I truly believe what the Bible says, and that we are able to triumph over the enemy by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony (Revelation 12:11), then it is only appropriate to share the complete story of how Jesus has rescued me and what he has rescued me from. Without recognizing the depth of the darkness I have seen, it is impossible to celebrate fully the illuminating and life-giving light of Christ!
“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”
– Isaiah 1:18
Both of my parents were raised in an incredibly legalistic church with rules and doctrines that seem cult-like in retrospect. God was all-powerful, but not all-loving. Essentially, each person within the church had to choose between two equally defeating paths: be completely perfect and go to Heaven, or commit a sin and go to Hell. My parents met at the church’s college, and had already chosen their paths. My beautiful mom had an earnest desire to please God and was aiming for the cruelly impossible “complete perfection” option, while my dad was on the unmentioned third path which is along the lines of “I am already condemned and going to Hell, so why not do what I want?” with an interesting double-life twist in which he would attempt to keep up appearances and pretend to be on the “complete perfection” route in front of certain company.
By the time I came along, my parents were in their early thirties and my older sister was in the 6th grade. My dad was brilliant in some ways – handsome and charismatic, artistically and athletically gifted. Despite his better qualities and natural talents, he had a deep darkness and emptiness within him. He was a product of an abusive home in which religion was used as a means to violently control others, and I am pretty sure he originally turned to drugs and alcohol and women as a way to escape from the frightening reality he was born into. Whatever it was that caused him to invite these addictions into his life, it never left him.
I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with my dad because my mom left him when I was 5 years old, and then he passed away in a car accident when I was 12. I would still visit him, of course, after the divorce. The times he would actually show up to pick me up on his scheduled Friday evenings, the weekend would usually consist of him passing out for hours on end and me finally getting hungry enough and lonely enough to wake him up and threaten to call my mom to come get me. Sometimes my dad would cry and apologize and beg me to stay, and on good days he would even take me out to eat. Other times I would get lengthy lectures about kids starving in Africa, and he would tell me that we had more than enough food in the kitchen to eat and then reprimand me for complaining. One night he even opened an expired can of beets and made me finish it to teach me a lesson in gratitude, I think I was 6 years old at the time.
If my weekend visit didn’t consist of my dad being passed out, then he was most likely throwing a party at the house. My dad worked in construction and would invite his crew over to get high and drunk. They would play loud music and throw darts in the kitchen, sometimes the party would turn into a drunken midnight basketball tournament in the driveway. One time a fight broke out and someone pushed a guy through the living room window, shattering the glass and breaking the screen. During these parties, I remember feeling wildly uncomfortable and totally forgotten. I would usually go and hide under the over-sized grey desk in my dad’s bedroom, and when the party wouldn’t end and hours would pass without him noticing I was gone, I would either fall asleep there on the floor or call my mom to come pick me up.
No matter how disappointing my weekends were, I still loved my dad. And even more than I loved him, I wanted him to love me. As a child I somehow knew that there was a deep sadness within him. I could feel it. When he hurt me or neglected me, I usually felt more sorry for him than I ever was angry with him. I was desperate to help him become the better man I inexplicably believed he could have and should have been. Despite the harder times and the scars that his presence in my life left on my heart, God blessed me with a handful of incredible memories of my dad. He wasn’t a good man, but he had a few good moments. And I am thankful for that.
“And even more than I loved him, I wanted him to love me.”
I remember getting ready and waiting eagerly for his truck to pull up outside of my mom’s apartment every other Friday night. It would devastate me when he wouldn’t show up, though the reality was I would probably be wanting to call my mom to come rescue me before the weekend was over. I guess there was always hope deep within me that the next time it would be different, that his love for me would overpower the addictions that ruled him. Years later I found out that on the nights I was sitting in the living room wondering why he was late and hoping that he remembered it was his weekend to have me, my mom was in the other room praying to God that he wouldn’t show up.
Sometimes my dad had an irrepressible rage that bubbled over into violence and abuse. On top of this aggression, he was incredibly deceptive and manipulative – denying that he would ever do what others had just witnessed him doing, and then delivering long-winded discourses on the importance of morality and integrity. For whatever reason, my dad didn’t seem to have the energy to pour his wrath out on me in a violent way. The pain I received from my dad as a child was mostly due to neglect and abandonment. As I got older and learned more about the person my dad was before I was born, and even the man he was when I was too young to understand that he was living a life full of addictions and denial, I began to struggle with my inclination to love him because he was my dad and my responsibility to hate him because of everything else he was.
It took a lot of guts for my mom to walk out on my dad. First of all, divorce was not permitted in their church. By choosing to leave my dad, she was essentially choosing to go to Hell. I suppose after what she had been through, she figured that Hell couldn’t be much worse. Before she left him and after enduring seventeen years of being mistreated, she mustered up the courage to speak to the church about what was happening in our home. I don’t know if she gave details about the abuse and the gambling, the affairs and the addictions, the lies and the lectures, or how my dad would disappear for days on end with no explanation. Whatever she did end up sharing that day, the man from the church told her that my dad wouldn’t be doing any of these things if she just committed to being a better wife. Needless to say, she packed up our bags soon after that conversation.
It was late and dark, and my parents were screaming at each other. I can’t remember what they were saying, but I knew they meant it. My dad was refusing to let us leave him, and for the first time, my mom wasn’t backing down. At one point, I think each of my parents had a grip on either of my arms and were literally pulling me back and forth in opposite directions like they were the final two rivals left standing in a tug-of-war contest. The last image I have of that night is my mom holding one of my dad’s rifles and speaking what would be her final piece for the evening. My mom, sister, and me were on the road to a nearby hotel before sunrise.