My father was a kind and gentle man. He was an accomplished musician. He received a Purple Heart for his service during World War II. He was exceedingly generous.
Yet he was a deeply flawed and troubled man. He was an alcoholic. When intoxicated (which was too frequent), he was capable of verbal and physical abuse. While I was spared most of the direct wrath during these episodes, those around me certainly suffered and, by extension, I was affected. When I reflect back on having to be in a car with a seriously impaired driver, I am surprised that I am even here, not another fatality statistic. If not for my brother screaming at the top of his lungs one evening, we certainly would have crashed head-on with another car on a rural road in Illinois. But we survived. Cancer of the throat (from chronic alcohol and tobacco exposure) did take my father’s life when I was 30 years old.
I have always asked myself—Why or how did this happen? How could such a gentleman (my father) become so troubled that he sought solace in alcohol? How could he strike out at those that he loved in such a vile way? I have since heard tales of perhaps less than adequate nurturing for him as a child. And I think there is no doubt that the war deeply affected him. PTSD was not recognized back then but I am convinced that those war experiences had a detrimental effect. I suspect that both of these factors (early nurturing and the war) contributed.
During my introspective journey over the last 40 years (and particularly over the last 20 years since the shootings at Columbine High School), I have thought about my father at times, realizing that forgiveness will be the key to moving on and trying to use my father’s memory for positive things in my life. Yet bad memories often clouded my thinking and made such actions difficult. Forgiveness is a real journey, often with some steps forward and some steps backward.
So why the sudden reflection today? Well, I have to thank Mr. Rogers. In the recent movie, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, there was a very memorable scene where Fred Rogers is meeting with the cynical journalist featured in the movie. The journalist could not get beyond his ill-feelings toward his philandering and absent father. The journalist could not see how he could ever reconcile with his father. Mr. Rogers reminded him that we are the product of all of the people in our lives. (I don’t know if this scene actually occurred, but it certainly is in keeping with his persona.)
If we are the product of all of those in our lives, then I must accept that indeed my father has had a profound effect in my life. I’d like to think that the positive aspects from his life have been incorporated into my life. The negative aspects have served to remind me that everyone is human and flawed in some way. And I need to remember that those negative aspects have served as a guide for things to avoid and things to do better. And I need to remember that forgiveness is the guide for the journey forward.
Did the survival from that episode with my intoxicated father have an effect on me? Absolutely! Will it continue to have an effect? Absolutely! I am here to learn from that and to help others to the best of my ability.
Being mindful of those around us and accepting them and their humanity is so crucial to our lives. The lessons of Mr. Rogers are pertinent to me, at every stage of my life. His messages are certainly for more than children!