Back when my mom was pregnant with me, my dad was a pretty shitty husband. He was working and partying with a group of younger guys, and as a result developed a bit of a coke habit. This in and of itself wouldn't be a huge deal, but we weren't exactly rich and it didn't take long before he had bankrupted us and we were on the verge of losing the house. He kept it all hidden, of course, until Mother's Day '84, when it all came to a head.
When I was growing up, my parents would occasionally mention What Happened In '84. Somewhere along the way it became clear that it was something my dad had done, but that was the most they would let on. I chalked it up to just another one of those things "for when you're older," and so we (my older sister and I) proceeded to have a fairly normal and happy childhood.
By the time I graduated high school, my parents were in the middle of a divorce. They had separated a couple years before when my dad was busted hiding money from my mom, which in context was a big deal. For whatever reason, they decided It Was Time. To talk about What Happened in '84. So one day Dad came over and we all sat down in the living room and my dad started in:
We went out and had a nice, big, happy family outing (My mom likes to speculate in retrospect that my dad was just gathering witnesses). Coming home exhausted, we all went to bed except my dad, who stayed up and got high. So high that he began ruminating on his failures as a husband and father, and somehow in his drug-addled mind came to the conclusion that we'd be better off dead then ever knowing just how badly he'd f#@%ed up.
But apparently he'd be able to live with it because he decided to get up, turn on the gas stove, and leave. Leave us all asleep in our beds to asphyxiate. Or, you know, maybe just blow up.
By some small (secular) miracle, my mom woke up to my sister talking in her sleep and realized what had been done. She then, in a panic, proceeded to do everything you shouldn't -- she turned on lights and made phone calls while we all stayed in the house. She actually called a women's shelter first, but it was busy (I'm sure they didn't have more than one person on staff at that time), so despite her reservations she called the police.
She still likes to tell me (for some reason) how when the officers arrived I smiled at them; completely oblivious to just how rocked our worlds had just become. My sister, on the other hand, spent her entire childhood with night terrors and still can't sleep in a house alone. Eventually Dad returned home (to make sure it worked? Because he had second thoughts? I'll never be sure), and was arrested.
After living with my grandparents for some time, and charges never getting pressed (fun law enforcement fact: It's not up to you!), my parents reconciled for the perceived good of us kids and we proceeded to grow up none the wiser.
As my dad told me his side of the story through tears, I was having an entirely different reaction. I couldn't stop smiling. Or giggling. I had to mask my laughter with a pillow hugged up to my face. I call it "Doctor Hibbert Syndrome" -- laughing at the most inappropriate times.
I guess it was the shock of the whole thing; I literally couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was too ridiculous. I suppose it's for that same reason that I forgave him immediately; it was just so clear to me in that moment that the person who did that wasn't My Dad. The man and life I had known prior was everything his story was not. It wasn't until years later that I became angry. Very, very angry.
I distinctly remember when my mind changed. I had sent in my FAFSA one year, and despite my family still being dirt poor I didn't get a damn thing. Looking at the forms I was shocked to see that my mom was making 60k a year. Incredulously, I asked my sister why, then, we were still helping her pay the bills (at one point I had to give an entire student loan check to her to save the house from foreclosure).
She explained that in the divorce agreement my mom assumed half of the debt my family was still in. So even though she was doing well for herself after going back to school, we were all still paying for his mistakes, made all those years ago. Not until then did I realized all the ways what he did had shaped our lives, and would continue to shape our future.
I also was an adult by then, and had been treated as a peer by both parents for some time (that's the optimistic take. It was more like we were parenting our parents). As a result I began to see my father as an individual instead of an authority figure, and I didn't like what I saw.
A therapist once said that because he began using drugs at such a young age (14 to be exact, given to him by his father. My family is what you might call "colorful") his emotional development was stunted. He was functionally a child, and never before had it been so obvious to me. Every time he said "I love you" or "I'm so proud of you", all my sister and I heard was "I'm so glad I got away with it." At times I downright loathed him, but mostly I just felt pity.
It's been nearly 10 years since I found out What Happened in '84 and a lot has changed. My dad got remarried (but not before my sister and I sat his new wife down to make sure she knew the whole story) and I now have 4 amazing step-brothers and sisters. It's a little hard sometimes, to see him working so hard and doing so well by his new family after essentially abandoning ours, but we deal. In fact the daddy issues have mostly been on the back burner.
In the last few years the family has dealt with death, disease (including my own, but that's another IHTM), mental illness and bankruptcy. My sister and I have husbands of our own now too (we both eloped. Surprised?).
As the dust settles in my life I wonder if it wasn't for the best that I never got an opportunity to really dig into my feelings surrounding all of this (and it's an odd thing to cope with, retroactive trauma). I've had to just live with it -- live past it really -- and frame it in a really objective and matter-of-fact way. This is what happened. This is who my family is.
And while it's a major part of our lives, it doesn't define us. It doesn't define me. I know that's terribly cliche, but the older I get the more truth I find in crap like that. I don't have to be the Victim, and he doesn't have to be the Attempted Murderer. Now, as hard as it may be sometimes, we try like hell to just be Father and Daughter. Which I don't think I need to tell you is work enough on it's own.