Dreams of Kindness, Love and Grace by Carolyn Berry
For the past six months I’ve been shedding old skin after serving as my father’s oarsman across the River Styx in November. Grief has brought me into step with the whirling-dervish legacy bequeathed me by this man. As I beheld his life’s consummation, I was unaware that barely beneath my transparent skin bubbled grueling turmoil. Turmoil catalyzed by the challenge of writing a truthful yet honoring eulogy for his funeral. I felt marrow-deep despair at having loved him, when he was one of the most unlovable people I have ever known. And I have gradually come to see more clearly that the qualities I like most about myself are a direct result of characteristics I utterly despised in him.
My father was serving in Korea when I was born. He returned a fractured soul, irreversibly affected by post-traumatic stress syndrome(back then no one knew what it was). In his teens, he had watched his own father slowly suffocate from chronic lung disease, in the days before Predizone eased some of the more disgusting manifestations of deteriorating airways. He faced the unavoidable duty of supporting his mother and two sisters. Daddy graduated, enlisted, married my mother and adopted my older brother, and planted my spark of life in mom’s womb before departing for War.
Omnipresent anger and an utter disdain for authority were his sum and substance. Shortly after returning stateside, Daddy walked from our 3-room apartment headed for work … and kept driving that ribbon of highway.
I met him for the first time when I was 10. Arrested by federal agents in Texas, where he played bass in a dance band and downed Bacardi 151 three meals a day, he was given a simple choice: #1. serve time in federal prison for desertion and failure to support, or #2. go “home,” display “exemplary behavior” during probation, and assume the role of “loving dad and faithful husband.” He chose Door Number Two. A 20-year domestic war resulted.
He raged. He cursed. He used his fists. He lost eight front teeth, one by one, in fights with men he once called friends. He drank. He slammed doors. He made maniacal threats. In 5th grade I watched him rip the phone off the wall and … in surrealistic slow motion … hurl it at Mom’s face. The spray of blood from her broken nose permanently stained both wallpaper and carpet.
Initially I learned that invisible is a very good thing. I learned to scan the landscape for clues about safety. In the long-run, a better strategy evolved. To be perfect (blameless) and entertaining (distracting) to save my family. I also learned that men are dangerous … and was attracted to damaging men through my 20s and 30s, with dark and painful results.
The peaceful death of this warring man was a paradox. I had never seen him so sweet as on his deathbed. I cradled him there, wishing he had been softer, quieter, sweeter in life. I recognized the bewildering dichotomy of my being his daughter. We could not have been more opposite.
It has occurred to me … in an epiphany that continues to expand in wider circles of recognition and awareness … that I am who I am NOT in spite of him, but BECAUSE OF HIM. My question is this: What if, in that eternality and wisdom that held my spirit before its incarnation, I actually chose this coarse man to be my father—because of exactly who he was?
His hatred for all people of color, his bigotry and use of vile prejudicial language, grew in me a heart for human/civil rights.
His penchant for creating conflict and dominating through power molded my career as a peacemaker—a mediator—helping others find consensus on principles. His propensity to express through violence nurtured in me an ability to explain emotional sensations in ways that move people toward deeper understanding—and deeper emotional connection.
His need for constant upheaval developed my fierce resilience.
His God-anger and spiritual unrest propelled me to find the place of Spirit within myself, to nurture it, to rest in it.
Perfect father? Not by a long stretch. Kind human being? Well, occasionally I truly saw glimpses of kindness, but it was not a dominant characteristic. Key catalyst in shaping of the Spirit who lives in my skin? Clearly, yes. Gratefully, yes. I am all of who I am because of exactly who he was. Hard lessons? Oh yes. But there are no accidents. I am free to choose, free to assess, free to live as I determine. And I believe I see more clearly … because of him.
Carolyn Berry serves professionally as a public policy dispute resolution coordinator throughout Oregon. She is also a writer, a social/environmental activist, and public speaker. Contact Carolyn at [email protected].