All we know about my father’s upbringing is that he lived alone with his grandmother. He was very secretive about why or when his parents left him, and even whether or not they were still alive. Alcoholism apparently figured in there somewhere.
Sometime in his childhood he was struck by a paralytic disease, which weakened the right side of his body. If you looked at him closely, even when he was an adult, you could see it. Still, during his school years he was state champion in tennis, twice. He had tremendous will power when he chose to use it. In college he was a scholar as well as an athlete—handsome, personable, well-liked, definitely a “most likely to succeed” type of man.
He was also, even then, an alcoholic.
For a career he chose to be a Lutheran minister, and through most of my childhood was the assistant pastor of a church in Southern California.
When he married and raised children of his own, he was determined that his would be a model family for the whole congregation. Having no actual experience of what a family should be, he created it from the outside, mimicking what he thought an ideal family should look like.
My parents had a very active social life—bridge parties, square dancing, golf. Everything included alcohol; and my father was always the life of the party, especially when he was drinking. For every social occasion we three children were dressed to the nines, every hair in place. My two brothers are twelve years apart in age, with me, the only daughter, exactly in the middle.
My father saw to it that we were well trained, not only in academics but also in sports—and for me, music and dance. He was an active, involved dad, especially with my brothers and their sports. He also often took me out on the tennis court early in the morning, seeing in me a future champion.
And he sexually abused me; and when he became angry—which was often—he beat my mother.
Finally, when I was twelve, my parents separated and a few years later divorced. Around that time my mother became a fundamentalist Christian, and ever thereafter I had to deal with her unrelenting intensity on that subject.
Growing up with such hypocrisy from a so-called “man of God,” then later dealing with my mother’s religious fanaticism, should have turned me against God forever.
The first miracle of this story is that they did not. In fact, as my life progressed, I drew closer and closer to God. Looking back I can see that even at the worst of times, even when I let go of His hand, He clung tightly to mine.
Always He provided at least one safe person for me—my older brother, a nurse at my elementary school, a kindly neighbor who welcomed me into his home.
It is no surprise that once I got out on my own I made one unfortunate choice after another. I sought haven in religion, but several times put my faith in spiritual leaders who, although perhaps sincere in their love for God, turned out to be alcoholic, perverted, or self-serving in other ways.
It is no surprise, also, that I sought comfort in men. But I had no insight into people. I married three times, and had several other relationships as well. I never chose a replica of my father, but each man bore enough similarity to him that true selfless love was not possible.
Soon after I married for the first time my father assured me, in the crudest way, that even though I had a husband, “You will always belong to me.”
In my mid-thirties, after a painful divorce, I started seeing a therapist. I knew something was very wrong with me, but I had suppressed the memory of most of what happened to me as a child, so the cause of my unhappiness was a mystery to me.
Fortunately, God knew, and he brought me—without my knowing it—to a therapist who specialized in helping people who had suffered in the way I had. And her solution, thanks be to God, was to help her clients come closer to God.
Nothing happened fast, nor did my healing follow a straight and simple course. This is not that kind of miracle. This is the miracle of God’s patient love. He never gave up on me, and as a result, I never gave up on myself.
As for my father, for many years he still held a certain terror for me. Even after he was crippled by a stroke, confined to a wheelchair, with the beginning of dementia, I was still afraid to be alone with him. Only when I saw that he could no longer dominate me, physically or emotionally, was I able to be in his presence without fear. In a rare, self-revealing moment, he said, “I went to be with God, but I was never good enough.”
Ah, what suffering! It doesn’t excuse the suffering he inflicted on me, but it helps explain it; and it gives me greater compassion for what it must have been like for him.
I feel closer now to God than ever before. I have found a spiritual path and a community of like-minded friends, and I live with them a simple life of service and devotion.
The miracle of this story is that I am here to tell it.