By the time I was 12, I often fantasized about how much happier my family would be if my father wasn't around. I used to lie in bed cringing to the stop-and-start screeching of car brakes approaching our street. I knew it was my dad, drunk again, inching his way home. I was sure that everyone else on our block knew it too. He was an embarrassment. And sometimes, he was frightening.
I hated the way alcohol fueled the rage he unleashed on my mother. I pretended to be asleep during his tirades — huddling under my covers and praying he wouldn't open my bedroom door. He didn't — his anger was always aimed at Mom. But that scarred me just the same.
One night when I was 15, the unmistakable sound of a slap followed by my mother's terrified whimper jolted me from the safety of my bed. I ran to the family room where my two younger brothers yanked at dad's jacket and pummeled him with their balled up fists, trying to get him away from our mom.
"Leave her alone!" I screamed. Dazed and unsteady, he backed away and staggered out the front door. As his car lurched off, I turned to my mother. Blood streamed from the corner of one of her eyes. I grabbed a wad of paper towels from the kitchen and handed them to her.
"I think I need stitches," she said, as the towels turned red. "Can you drive me to the hospital?"
I didn't have my license yet. But as usual, I was eager to be my mother's savior. As the eldest of four children, it made me feel special to be singled out as her confidante. I was used to mom tiptoeing into my room after one of my dad's drunken attacks, seeking comfort and advice. I told her the same thing every time: Leave him. She'd nod and agree. But her whispered promises always evaporated with the sunrise.
Most mornings after one of their fights, I'd wake to find my dad brooding over a cup of coffee at the kitchen counter while my mom cooked him breakfast. As the fan above the stove whisked away the smell of frying bacon and eggs, it seemed also to blow away her memory of the previous night's events.
I thought things would be different after the night my dad struck her. Wired on adrenaline, I remember gripping the steering wheel of Mom's VW station wagon, slowly maneuvering the car through thick fog. As we crept towards the hospital, I imagined I was one of the troubled young heroines in the "ABC After School Movie" specials I sometimes watched. Their problems were always neatly resolved in 90 minutes. I hoped ours would be, too, once my mother was stitched up. I was certain she'd never let my father set foot in our house again.
But she did. And as much as I loved my mother, I resented her for staying in such a toxic relationship for so long. A few years later, though, she did finally realize she didn't want to waste the rest of her life being unhappy. She made the decision to leave my dad. By that time, though, I'd graduated from high school and moved out of the house.
Only later, as an adult who'd experienced my own share of unhealthy relationships — staying in some for far too long — could I sympathize with my mom. There was no way she could have raised all of us kids on her receptionist's salary. And my father's long list of threats included making sure she'd never get a penny of child support if they divorced.
As a child, I couldn't comprehend how hard it was for him to try to take care of a family while mired in depression. I didn't understand that his drinking was a way of coping with his pain.
After he and my mom split up, my dad got sober and moved out of state. We didn't see each other often or communicate much. But in the last years of his life, my father insisted on having annual summer reunions with all of his children.
At one of our first get-togethers in San Diego, the two of us were eating breakfast in our hotel one morning when Dad set down his fork and looked at me.
"I did so many terrible things," he said softly, shaking his head. "I wish I'd been a better father."
I touched his hand and told him it was okay. He'd apologized many times by then. I just wished he could forgive himself.
Later that day, we all went to the beach. Dad sat on a towel while the rest of us surfed. When I finally got out of the water and sat down beside him, the breeze had picked up and the air was cool. I worried he'd be cold or tired.
"You okay, Dad?" I asked.
"Okay?" he repeated. "Watching all of you play in the ocean together — this is the best gift I could ask for. Today I feel like a father."
Our last reunion was just before my dad's 87th birthday. When he suffered a ruptured aneurism, we were all at his side. Even my mother, with whom he'd made amends. We told him we loved him — and meant it — before he died an hour later.
I couldn't fix my broken family as a child. But it healed, however slowly and awkwardly, in ways I never thought possible.
DOROTHY O'DONNELLDorothy O'Donnell is a freelance writer and blogger.