The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day. Dr. Seuss
I love rain. It’s in my DNA. Walking home from primary school, wading through deep puddles of water formed from hours, days, maybe even weeks of torrential rainfall: it felt natural, normal. I’d then sit wrapped in a blanket, just inside the backdoor porch, pretending I was on an Island–a young female version of Robinson Crusoe, or Pippi Longstocking on her lesser-known adventure to the rain forest. Often my Mum would bring me a plate of “cast-off” cookies–all the little edges and cut-offs from her hours of weekly baking –Ginger Crunch, Louise Cake, Afghans, Shortbread –unlike Robinson, or Pippi, I never starved for food.
I grew up in a decidedly middle class family, in a middle class neighborhood of Auckland, New Zealand. While my mother stayed at home: baking, cleaning, ironing, mothering, my father ventured out each day aspiring to be a great husband and father.
It wasn’t for lack of effort, and certainly wasn’t for lack of love. My father was a selfless man, who adored my mother with the kind of love seen in a 1940s Hollywood movie. Dramatic, swooning, epic. Epically tragic. He loved me and my siblings in the same fashion. He was a devoted family man. Until he wasn’t.
Recently I came across a box of cards and mementoes from my life in NZ. Among them was a bundle of condolence letters after my father’s death. I was struck by one in particular-from a close friend and our family doctor, who remarked “Derek was a man with immeasurable love for his family.” This was not from a stranger who’d viewed our family at a distance, who’d maybe viewed our family snapshot and captioned it “normal, happy, 60s family.” This was from a man who’d known my family all my life; from a man who’d witnessed the wreckage, from a doctor who’d mended the broken pieces, literally.
This letter, written more than three decades earlier, changed me.
I began to see and understand my father with an adult’s hindsight. It allowed me to keep the myriad of beautiful memories of my father — coming to every one of my sports events, spending hours every weekend ferrying my friends and I up to Wairewa Hot Springs, spending every Saturday driving me out to Clevedon and waiting while I rode a horse for several hours, teaching me how to pick pippis from the beach at Cockle Bay, and helping me move from at least a dozen apartments within the space of a few years. That letter allowed me to see my real father, the one who’d adored me and my siblings, and who’d loved my mother with an unwavering, gut-wrenching passion.
In the same box of mementoes where I’d found the letter, I also found this photo taken many, many years ago, on one of the many Saturdays when my father had taking me horseback riding.
I always hated this picture. In truth, I hate every picture of myself. But my father carried this in his wallet until the day he died. My hair’s in its natural color and state–wildly curly, strawberry blond–and a few years later, when I cut it off entirely, my father bundled it up and kept in a small leather pouch among his “mementoes.”
Possibly, he saw my mother in this photo. Probably, he kept the photo and the hair because he loved me. All of these old, slightly worn photos, were kept by my father in his wallet until the day he died. As the letter had read–he had immeasurable love for us–his family.
But there were times when love wasn’t enough to harness, as Dexter would say, “his dark passenger.” His dark passenger ensured that both my father’s and my family’s life were unpredictable, often perilous. The loving husband and father that left home for work in the morning, often returned, unrecognizable, violent, drunk. This terror could rain down upon us for days, weeks, sometimes years. This was not the husband and father who loved us immeasurably; this was the monster that terrorized and endangered us. This was the unspeakable that existed in our happy, smiling, middle-class pretense.
The Sun did not shine.
So we hunkered down for a season, weathering all that the alcohol meted out…until it, he, was through with the reign of terror. The costs were huge. The man who was supposed to love and protect us, instead, committed unspeakable acts, hurting us all in unimaginable ways. Sometimes the carnage was short-lived, but the damage never was. Afterward, we’d all reassemble and then “bury” all the evidence that didn’t support the image of the happy family we were. We kept our silence, went to school with a packed lunch and a freshly ironed uniform, and skipped home hoping that it was a “baking” day. However, like all storm damage, the most we could mend was peripheral, temporal.
Like all ACOAs (Adult Children of Alcoholics), I and my siblings are damaged. The damage in us is hard to explain. We perceive the world through the past, so even on a beautiful rainy day we’re transported back to a place that was often devoid of beauty. It’s hard to separate the beauty from the pain. I’m getting much better at this, though, furiously holding on to the good, truly seeing my father as the loving man that he was. That’s the truth, after all. My father was enslaved to his disease just like the rest of us. If he were alive I’d tell him just that, and thank him for doing the very best he could, with the flawed hand that was dealt him.