21910_000_005When my alcoholic father needed my help, I felt like shouting, “Where were you when I needed a father?”
Tammy * and I were newlyweds and moving into our first apartment. As I was unpacking books one afternoon, a picture of me at age nine fell from my copy of Huckleberry Finn. I paused, then picked it up and sat on the floor in the corner of the room looking at it. My father had taken this picture on the Fourth of July at home in Kansas City. I was dressed in a white sailor outfit and was leaning against an oak tree. I could still see the pain in my young face—bitter pain I carried throughout my childhood.
I remember clearly the day it happened. I had been over at my best friend John’s * house. We were watching television when John casually said, “Hey, my mom told me that your parents are getting a divorce.” My mind went numb. I just kept my eyes on the television set, but I didn’t really see it. Another image filled my mind—my father’s stern scowl directed toward my mother. They pushed, shoved, and threatened each other. Their faces were red and filled with anger as they hurled ugly insults with all their might. I saw myself curled up in a dark corner of the living room—too afraid to move. I covered my ears with my hands and tried to concentrate on the ant that was crawling on the plant in front of me—anything to ignore those harsh words. I screamed in my mind, “Stop! Stop! Stop! Please stop!”
The phone at John’s house rang and brought me back to the present. I ran home. But I decided that day that if my parents did not need each other, then I certainly did not need them. Many times after that I stood looking out my bedroom window struggling through my tears with clenched fists in a vain attempt to understand my life.
I forgave my mom. But my dad moved to Phoenix, and for a decade I kept my distance from him—both emotionally and physically.
At 18, I went to Arizona State University and lived just five miles away from my dad. I visited him occasionally, but he was usually drunk, and the sound of the carbonated spray from a just-opened beer can was never far away.
At 21, I joined the Church while still at Arizona State. For the first time in my life I knew there was a God who cared for me and was concerned about the kind of person I was. I felt as if He were smiling on me.
Two years later, while I was home in Kansas for Christmas vacation, my dad was rushed to the hospital by ambulance with a blood-alcohol level of 4 percent. He had almost drunk himself to death. He had to stay in the hospital until he could go through therapy with at least one family member. I was the only one in the family who could help, and deep inside I knew it was how it should be anyway—I was the eldest son. So I left Kansas City in the middle of my vacation and went to Phoenix to join him in therapy.
When I arrived, a nurse told me that my father was in room 16, all the way at the end of the hall. I had not seen my father in more than a year. I stepped into the room, not knowing whether to give him a hug or shake his hand. We embraced, but I felt no emotion. I should have been happy, but our estrangement was obvious even in that hug. I had never been a very good actor. In reality, I felt sorry for us because although we were father and son we were really just acquaintances.
Nevertheless I visited the hospital daily. After all, for the first time in my life, my father needed me. Everyone commented on what a fine son my father had raised. When I heard them, I felt angry inside and wanted to shout, “He did not raise me—I raised myself!” I remembered all those times I needed him and he wasn’t there. I felt like climbing up on the roof of the hospital, thrusting my arms skyward, and shouting, “Where were you? Where were you? Where were you when I needed a father?” But, as always, I kept on smiling, hoping to drown out the little boy inside who wept because he never had a chance to come out and play with his dad.
Yet things changed as we went through therapy together. I got to know him as a person, a sober person. I discovered things we had in common. I actually started to like him. The more I got to know him, the more I prayed I could understand what went wrong between him and my mother. By the time we were finished with therapy, I had let go of a lot of my bitterness.
When Tammy and I were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple, my dad was still sober and came and waited for us on the temple grounds. As Tammy and I entered the celestial room, we held hands and sat down close to each other. I leaned my head back and looked at the intricate design of the ceiling high overhead. I thought about the faithful pioneers who had painstakingly carved and painted the labyrinth of surfaces. They must have worked as if Jesus Christ, the Master Builder Himself, were watching over their shoulders checking on the craftsmanship. I thought about my dad waiting outside for us. Christ, the Master Builder, had also watched over us as we had rebuilt our relationship. Gone was the sting of feeling abandoned, replaced by the soothing balm of the Atonement and the peace that forgiveness brings. I knew my dad and I would continue to grow together in our love and friendship.
So as I sat on the floor of our apartment as a newlywed, I slipped the picture back between the pages of Huckleberry Finn. I wiped tears from my eyes, grateful that at last, my father was there when I needed him.
Peace through Forgiveness
“Only the life, teachings, and particularly the atonement of Jesus Christ can release us from this otherwise impossible predicament. Each of us has made mistakes, large or small, which if unresolved will keep us from the presence of God. For this reason, the atonement of Jesus Christ is the single most significant event that ever has or ever will occur. This selfless act of infinite consequence, performed by a single glorified personage, has eternal impact in the life of every son and daughter of our Father in Heaven—without exception.” Elder Richard G. Scott, “Finding Forgiveness,” Ensign, May 1995, 75.