We stood opposite one another in the quiet kitchen as the first watery rays of spring’s early morning light fell on our shoulders like dust drifting down from the rafters.
“I’ve been meaning to try this recipe,” he said into the silence, not lifting his gaze from our task: Rolling apple slices into triangles of cinnamon-sugared croissant dough.
“Hmmm.” I nodded, reaching for another too-thick slice, noticing how his thick fingers struggled to pinch the firm apple and soft dough together into neat little packages.
“Some of the apple should stick out just a little,” he said, treating the slippery slices with care. I rolled another, making sure to follow his instructions.
“And if we really want to get fancy,” he said, turning to reach for a box stuffed into a cabinet above the massive commercial oven, “some granulated sugar sprinkled over the top.”
My baking sheet, nearly finished, was ready for this final touch.
“I can finish the rest,” I suggested, noticing his baking sheet was still mostly empty. His hands, I noticed, tend to shake in the mornings.
He cleared his throat. “Yeah, maybe I’ll get the sausage going.” The guests at my father’s bed and breakfast would, I knew, be down for breakfast soon.
I hadn’t fully explained to myself how this visit to my father would work into the overall design of our ever-changing relationship. It was a question my stepmother and half-sister had certainly asked, when I told them I would be coming – with my children – to see my five-decades-as-an-alcoholic dad. I couldn’t help but hear a twinge of accusation in the question; after all, my ultimatum of nearly two years ago had been designed to force my father to put down the bottle. I mean, what grandfather wouldn’t want to see his grandkids? That was the deal: Stop drinking, or don’t see my girls.
But two years had passed, and his life hadn’t really changed. He was still chained to this dark addiction that has led him down a jagged road with stops at the hospital, jail and rehab. What had changed in my life was simply that I didn’t see my dad, or speak to him, so that I simply wouldn’t have to deal with the hurt, frustration, and anger of being related to an addict. I would simply wrap all those feelings into neat little packages, and get on with my life.
But it’s not that simple to hide those slippery sentiments completely. They tend to stick out a little.
Pushing my father out of my life didn’t clear away the muck and grime that still coats the corridors of my mind and hides in corners of my heart. It didn’t make me less sad about the ways in which we have watched my father’s addiction steadily destroy his health, his relationships and his fragile existence as a husband, father and member of society. So in addition to feeling a stab every time I thought of all the things that should have been, I also felt the hollow grief of losing someone important to me.
My father’s baby brother wrote me recently, as if somehow intuiting this dialogue I’d been having with myself about whether locking my father out of my life was really doing any of us any good.
I have learned that love is the key to minimizing the damage and I know that you love your Dad. When we love someone unconditionally, we completely take away their ability to hurt us, he wrote, going on to quote Paul in Philippians: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Gently, kindly, with his heartfelt note, my uncle nudged me to consider an alternate reality: A reality in which I can love my father and not be hurt by him.
So be true to your heart, he ended his letter to me. You will of course continue to love your Dad, but it needs to be with an unconditional love; any other kind of love needs something in return. All that is left for you to do is to love him with the love that God put into your heart, before you were even born. In other words, you have permission to love and respect your Dad because of who he is and not because of what he has done; his performance does not have to be a factor.
I went on this pilgrimage to visit my father with my heart in my throat and my uncle’s words in my mind. I forced myself to take off the blinders and face the crumbling vestiges of a man shackled by this complex phenomenon that many call a disease. Expect nothing, I told myself.
And by expecting nothing, this sugar-sprinkled moment came to me by surprise. My father and I making breakfast, as the rising sun dripped light onto our shoulders and the dust settled softly around us.