Father’s Day for children of abusive fathers

I remember the moment clearly.  It was the spring of 2014.  I was visiting the Albany Center Gallery; my photo The Jumbuck, a profile shot of an Icelandic sheep, was my first-ever acceptance into the Capital District Photo Regionals.  Man, what a great moment.  What an accomplishment.

Then I received the text.

“Dad died.  Don’t blog about it.  Out of respect for the family.”

So I kept his death out of my blog for four years.

I kept it out when I saw his obituary and how it listed every single family member – including my mother and my kid – and completely left me off the list.

I kept it out when I waited until everyone else had paid their respects at the burial, and then I went to the stone – he and my mother are buried together – and told my mother that this would be the last time I would visit her, and that I hoped my father was burning in hell.

Yeah, Father’s Day is kind of rough for me.  And I’m tired of not talking about what he did.

See, I have two men who could technically be classified as my father.  My biological father is still living in Utah with his fourth wife, I blogged about him ages ago.

Eventually my biological parents split apart – I can’t say “divorced,” since I don’t think they ever got married – and my mother moved back to Albany.  She got a job with a company in Albany’s warehouse district, where she met John Bailey.

John Bailey’s great achievement up to that point in time, was two tours of duty during the Vietnam war, rising to the rank of lance corporal.  He served his country with honors in operations in Pho Lat, Thua Thien Province. Phu Thu Peninsula – Operation Beaver, Bi-Thanh Tan – Operation Florida – Operation Jay – Operations Hastings, Quang Tri Province – Operations against the Viet Cong, Da Nang area.

Serving your nation is very honorable.  And we should be proud of our veterans.

John Bailey, however, had one more battle in his life.  A battle with alcoholism.  And one more war with Charlie.  And I don’t mean Viet Cong Charlie.

John Bailey married my mother in 1969, and they lived iin a double-deep, double-wide mobile home in Saratoga County – first in Greenfield Center, then in Corinth, and then the trailer was hauled to a trailer park in Schenectady.  And during that time, when John Bailey drank, he drank heavily.  And when his anger was fueled with alcohol …

There were incidents.  Moments when I feared hearing the tires on the pebble-encrusted driveway at 11:45 p.m.  Because if he was drunk, and if anything set him off, he would burst in my room, slap me out of my bed for any little issue, beat me within two inches of my life, and leave me in tears for the night.

In one of those violent outbursts, he pulled me out of bed and flung me into a dresser.  I tried to brace myself for the impact, but my elbow smashed into the dresser before I could react.  Left elbow smashed in eight places.  Even today, I can not touch my left shoulder with my left hand due to the re-fusing of the broken bones.  I lied and told my mother that I fell out of the bunk bed.  I didn’t tell her, as she rushed me to the emergency room, that “fell out of the bunk bed” was code for “yanked out of bed and thrown against a dresser.”

The beatings messed with my mind.  It messed with my soul.  I was already an awkward, knuckleheaded kid in school, running afoul of the bullies and the griefers – so I was getting beat up at school and getting beat up at home.

The final straw came in 1978.  I call it the pasta candle incident.

Around that time, John Bailey had an evening job with a Schenectady tavern.  So if I came home from school at around 2:30 pm, he needed to be out the door to get to work by 3:00 p.m.

One afternoon, I got home at my usual 2:30 p.m.  He was on the couch, passed out from however many cans of Schlitz he drank the night before.  I tried to wake him up.  He would not budge.

I tried again.  Nothing.

One more time.  He grudgingly stirred.  He woke up.  He looked at his watch.  2:45 p.m.  He would be late for work.

He cursed at me, yelling drunken profanities about why I didn’t wake him up earlier, and that he was going to get in trouble for being late.  I was scared.  Really scared.  Scared like this might be worse than the usual slapping me around.

I tried to get to my bedroom, which was in the front of the trailer next to the living room.  I got the door open.

At that moment, I felt a big clang against the right side of my head.

John Bailey had picked up a pasta candle – a candle infused into a jagged glass jar, the kind you see on the white linen tables in low-lit Italian restaurants – and flung it at me with anger and precision.  The pasta candle smashed into my skull, then landed on the floor, spinning like a top against the linoleum.

I could feel blood oozing down the side of my head.  I ran in my bedroom, grabbed a towel and placed it where I felt the impact against my temple.  What was once a white towel turned claret red.

And John Bailey lumbered off to work.  My mother came home that night, she saw what I looked like – she washed my head and told me to say nothing, that he was just sleeping off a bad day, and that he really did love me.

Yes.  Nothing says “I love you” like a pasta candle to the side of your noggin.

This was in 1978.  At this point in time, my life was so screwed up, I actually contacted my biological father and begged to stay with him.  Yep.  I left one house of horrors for the Chestnut Prison.  I only lasted four months there before I spent the next two years living with my aunt and uncle in the DelSo neighborhood.  And even that was crazy.

Everything I did after that was an effort to stay away from him.  Hamilton College was a two-hour drive away from him.  My own apartment in Albany.  Eventually a house in Pine Hills.  And finally, a secure place in the Town and Village.

During that time, John Bailey turned into a doting grandfather.  He and my mother took my son Kris on vacations and they had great moments together.  I don’t know if he mellowed out or if old age had set in.

In 2005, my mother suffered a series of strokes.  I received word that she was in Albany Memorial Hospital.  I drove over to see her.

As I arrived to her room, I saw John Bailey waiting in the hallway.  As far as I was concerned, I would be willing to make peace.  I was willing to forgive.

And then John Bailey said something that reinforced everything I had ever remembered.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” he screamed at me.  Screamed loud enough that the nurses at the station heard it.

“I’m going to see Mom,” I said.

“Yeah, you bastard, you’re just here to see your mother die off so you can claim an inheritance.  Well guess what, you son of a bitch, you ain’t getting shit, you god damn bastard!!”

Another family member walked over.  I thought there might be some sort of calming effort.  Some sort of effective peacemaking.

“There there, it’s okay, he shouldn’t be here anyway.  Chuck didn’t mean to upset you by being here.”

And just like that … I felt a throbbing pain in my left elbow.  And a stinging pain in my right temple.  And a puncture in my heart.

I’ll put it this way.  John Bailey was a good father to his biological children.  And he was a good grandfather and uncle as well.

But what he did to me … the emotional and physical and mental abuse … has caused repercussions that I still feel today.  Over the years, I’ve tried to be as good a father as I possibly could for Kris.  I may not have been perfect at it, but I admit to my failures as a father.  And Kris and I have talked over the years about our lives.

What people forget about fatherhood is that it’s more than just providing a roof over a family’s head and meals on the table.  There were so many times that I battled through the kind of post-traumatic stress disorder one would experience in war.

Because, honestly, that’s what I went through.

For me, remembering Father’s Day is to remember how I barely made it through.  And how many other sons and daughters – how many of them survived the kind of child abuse that stays behind closed doors.

How do I still make it through today?

Most days, I’ll grab my camera and travel somewhere.  Anywhere.  I don’t care.

At some point, my son Kris will call me and wish me a Happy Father’s Day.  Which I appreciate very much.  And I know he’ll post a message about his grandfather on social media.  Which I understand.  Different family members have different experiences with different people.  It’s all perspective.

And I know I can never get that idyllic childhood that I wanted.  That every kid wants.

As much as this blog post would sound like a “pity my hard life” post, and I understand if you see it that way … somehow I found the strength to get away.  That’s the strength that means you cut ties with as many people as possible to avoid dealing with the one who still scares you to this day.

I know I had it rough.  No lie.

But I think about all those kids who, believe it or not, had it worse than me.  Orphans with no known father.  Kids who were infants when their fathers passed away.

And I wonder how they get through Father’s Day.  Do they struggle with it, the way I do?  Or have they made their peace with their world?

I’ll never know.

But then again, I’m still here today.

And they made it through as well.  We all have to be strong.  Strong and determined.  We can issue happy father’s day greetings to those who just became fathers.  Or for those who recently lost their beloved father, offering our support and kind words.

And if there’s hope in those hopeless moments I went through 45 years ago …

Then there’s life in what might have been a lifeless moment.