Forgiveness & Fuck You
My parents divorced in 1980, due to my father’s alcoholism.
My mother remarried in 1983, due in no small part to the fact that my father — in an attempt to keep her from divorcing him years before — had done a very thorough job of convincing her that if she divorced him, she would lose the house. (That probably wasn’t the only reason she remarried, but it was a significant one.)
Her second marriage was far, far worse.
~ My Stepfather ~
If you’ve heard me mention my stepfather before, you know that I find him the most repugnant human on the face of the earth. He is self-centered. He is egotisical, and for no good reason, the only real skillset he possesses is manipulation. He was laid off in the mid-80s and has never held steady work since, nor did he try. He lived off my mother, who was living off a sizeable child-support and alimony settlement she had received in the divorce.
Of course kids and step-parents often don’t get along, so perhaps you’re thinking that I’m being hyperbolic, and that he’s really not that bad. Trust me when I say that I’m not exaggerating at all. He has 4 daughters, and none want anything to do with him. One joined the airforce in order to get away from him. Another married far too young. The other two stayed behind and just grew to resent him more and more The ones who live nearby come to visit my mother on Christmas (although she’s been divorced from their father for 5+ years) and talk about the latest ways in which he is making them miserable.
He has a retarded brother. He once said to me, about his brother, “He has a pile of money in the bank, he doesn’t have to work [the truth is he can’t work, he doesn’t have the mental capacity], and he’s got people who feed him and take care of him. So you tell me, who’s the real dummy?” Nice, eh?
Their mother saved her entire life with one hope: that her retarded son would not have to leave the house he grew up in. When his mother became ill and had to be hospitalized, my stepfather pleaded with Medicare not to take the house because it was where his retarded brother lived. As soon as Medicare agreed not to take the house, my stepfather put his brother in a group home and put the house on the market. Nice, eh?
My stepfather used to take his brother to Las Vegas. He let the brother pay for everything, of course. In 1991, they were supposed to go for another trip. When they arrived at the house, his brother had obviously not shined his shoes. This led to a pushing and shoving argument instigated by my stepfather with his retarded brother who was about to take him on an all-expenses paid trip to Las Vegas. Again. Nice, eh?
When they finally divorced 5 years ago, a woman from the group home where his brother lived testified at the divorce trial (oh yeah, it went to trial) that no one at the facility had ever seen my stepfather visit his brother. No one. My mother continues (to this day) to take him out for Christmas and his birthday, knowing that his brother never will.
They separated for the final time in 2001, but they had gone through it before in 1993 and 1991 (after the above incident). In 1991 he got back in the house by agreeing to go to therapy — but he told both my mother and I that we were the real problem. In 1993, they had gone so far as to start divorce proceedings, and he convinced my mother to give him another chance. She called me while I was at college, and said: “I know you won’t be happy about this.”
“I would be a hypocrite if I said that I didn’t believe that forgiveness and reconciliation were possible,” I told her. “Besides, I don’t have to live with him, you do.”
He called me that night — the first and only time he ever called me while at college — in tears, to thank me for giving him another chance.
Needless to say, he never changed, and he eventually went on to have an affair with another woman, while living off my mother. (He also picked a fight with me during one of the most stressful weeks of my life, but that’s another whole story.)
To this day he’d tell you that he did nothing wrong, he’d tell you about what a hard time he had growing up with a retarded brother who took all of his parents’ time and attention. He’ll never apologize or try to reconcile, because he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. In his eyes, he’s the victim. He’s always been the victim.
Do I have any plans to forgive him? Fuck no. I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire, unless my urine was a combination of asparagus pee and kerosene. I plan to salt the earth over his grave and pay for the open bar after his funeral. Fuck him, I hope he spends eternity sitting on the hottest furnace in hell. My deepest hope is that he realizes the utter contempt that his children (and everyone else who knows him) has for him, and that he lives a long, long time with that realization.
Offering him forgiveness without a shred of repentance would be much like what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. It would be an affront to any meaningful understanding of the term “forgiveness.” This wasn’t casual or accidental harm that he caused, this was systematic and thorough abuse. I had a Christian Ethics professor in college who said that there was “No commandment in Scripture to be a door-mat for Christ.” There was a time I was hopeful for a reconciliation (if for no other reason than it would have made my mother happy), but he ultimately spit in the face of every attempted reconciliation.
~ My Father ~
During my high school years, I had a very challenging relationship with my father. His alcoholism was an open secret. No one talked about it, but we all managed our lives around it.
This drove me to the edge of despair on more than one occasion. I couldn’t deal with the unpredicability. He’d make promises and then forget them. I lived on eggshells, never sure what it would be that would set him off. (It was only later that I learned the answer was “Any excuse.”)
When I was 16 I was ready to give up completely, and the X-ACTO knife pressed to my wrist was only stopped because my mother called me for dinner, and I realized that she would be the one to find me, and I couldn’t do that to her. When I was 18, the only thing that stopped me from driving my car into oncoming traffic was a promise I made to a friend who was going off to the (first) Gulf War that I would see him when he returned.
College was my escape. I drew a 500 mile circle around my house and said “I’m going to college outside that circle.” Why? To get away from my father.
Sometime around the time I graduated from college, Dad decided he was ready to unfuckupify his life. He quit smoking and drinking. He started going to AA meetings. Daily. Eventually he went to counseling, and when talk-therapy wasn’t enough, he went on medication to fix what he had tried to fix with alcohol for all those years.
He was a completely different person. We had a completely different relationship. In 2000, I moved him down to live near us in Florida. When we moved to Ohio in 2003, we bought a house together, living under the same roof for the first time in over ten years since I had moved to get away from him. His death in 2006 is one of the great sadnesses of my life.
(Oh, and just in case you still don’t believe me about my stepfather and how people felt about him… at my Dad’s funeral, several people said to my mother, “God took the wrong ex-husband.”)
It was his alcoholism that was the cause for the divorce. It was his fear-mongering my mother that contributed to her getting into (and staying in) an even-worse second marriage. If he hadn’t have been alcoholic, I never would have had a stepfather, and my life… I can’t even imagine how different and better my life might have been.
All of that was his fault.
Did I forgive him?
Of course I did. And any reasonable person knows why.
Now, you can tell me that I ought to forgive my stepfather. You can tell me that my anger and resentment towards him hurts me more than it hurts him. I’ll agree. And I’ve tried. I really have. But I can’t. At least, I haven’t been able to so far. About 360 days out of the year I don’t even think about him. Maybe after he’s dead and I know that he won’t find a way to hurt anyone I care about ever again. Maybe. Even then I don’t think it will be “forgiveness” as much as it will be “acceptance” that this is how it was, this is how he treated us, and no amount of wishing or hoping can change the past, so it’s time to finally wipe our hands, be done with it, and never speak his name again.
But I think about my Dad almost every day, and I’m thankful for the time that we had together in those last years. He was given a prognosis of “6-18 months” in January of 2000, but lived until February of 2006. I spent most of those 6 “bonus years” with him. I never think about having “forgiven” him for anything. It just doesn’t occur to me to think about it that way. We never had a grandiose reconciliation. There was never a Big Talk. One day we just were in a different place than we had been before. I think that’s how forgiveness works most of the time. You start out working really hard at it, and then one day you realize that you don’t have to work at it anymore.
I don’t know. I’m clearly no expert. These are just the two most prominent and messy examples from my life.
~ Coda ~
Are you wondering what the image at the top of this article has to do with all of this?
It’s a picture of my mother’s freezer, taken a few weeks ago. At the end of the divorce trial, when it was clear that they were going to reach a settlement, I said to my mom, “You ought to tell the judge you want to go back to your maiden name” (if for no other reason than that my stepfather’s first wife and my mother had the same name, and the other ex had kept his name after the divorce, which caused no small amount of confusion).
She did ask the judge, and it was, of course, granted.
One of the big “sticking points” in the divorce trial was that he wanted half of my mother’s house, and she wanted him to eat shit and die. Although he walked away with a large financial payout, she got to keep the house.
We came back from court and I took a pad of yellow sticky notes and wrote “Property of Maryalice McCormack” on several of them, and placed them around the house: on the phone, on the handrail on the stairs, on the television, on the wall in the hallway, inside the kitchen cabinets, on the mirror in the bathroom, and anywhere else I could think of… including inside the freezer door. She found them for weeks afterwards.
This one, inside her freezer, is still there 5 years later. I expected that it would have been the first one to fall off, but it still hangs there, greeting anyone who opens the freezer door.
And it makes me smile every time I see it.