In a recent conversation with my mom, I could sense her concern on how others perceived my father, not just my father in general, but also my father as a man who had Multiple Sclerosis. At first I didn’t understand her worries because I only saw my dad as my loving, devoted father, I never defined him by a disease, just as I wouldn’t want others to define my son as Asperger’s Syndrome, or my daughter as PTSD, or me as a divorcee of an abuser. If people did only see my dad for his Multiple Sclerosis, then they missed out on knowing a great man.
No matter what life threw at him, he always handled it with dignity and stride. I asked him the year before his death how he did it. Every time I came to visit him, he always greeted me with a huge, loving smile and would ask about me. Me? He never wanted to talk about what the disease had done to him. He went from a vibrant, hard-working man to many years later barely being able to leave his bed. My amazing mom was always by his side, making sure his every need was taken care of; yet, the first thing out of their mouths was how was I?
My dad was not perfect, who is? What I do know is that from the minute he said, “I do” to my mom his first priority was always taking care and honoring his family. Six and a half years ago when my ex told me (on our 18th wedding anniversary/Father’s Day) that he was tired of being a husband and father and either I do it all or find someone to take his place because he had better things to do in his life; I remember being in complete shock by his words, and the worst part is my 13-year old daughter over heard him. I remember asking him “What kind of man abandons his family? My dad lost his first business right after I, one of five children, was born. Did he walk away? No, he sought out another career. After that he developed Multiple Sclerosis. Did he walk away? No, he sought out another career and started his own upholstery shop in his home, so he could provide for his family. When the MS took over and he could no longer work in his shop, did he walk away? No, he sought out another career (in his sixties now) and went back to college, so he could run a tax service out of his office. My dad never gave up. He was a real man and father.” My ex husband stood looking at me with dark, callous eyes, like a dementor from the book Harry Potter, who was about to suck away my soul, and said “Your dad wasn’t a man, he was a fool.”
I knew right then that my ex could never be a real role model for my children, as he showed me who the real fool was. My father may have already passed on, but my children knew him. He was their role model. They drew the above picture of him while I was still with my ex. When I asked my oldest son to draw a picture of family, he drew his grandparents. His version may have had my dad’s wheelchair, but it didn’t show my dad being helpless and defeated, it showed him the way I will always remember him: full of love for everyone that walked into his life. My parents taught me what love is.
When I was in college I was brutally attacked and I was so ashamed I never told anyone. My attacker began tormenting me and I decided I could no longer live with the shame anymore, and decided to end my life. Before I did, a co-worker, I barely knew, reached out to me and told me whatever was eating at me could be worked out. He told me if I ended my life, my oppressor won and the people I loved lost. He convinced me to tell someone; I went to my dad. I expected him to yell and scream at me and to be so ashamed, but instead he was calm, loving and gave me a huge hug; he told me he loved me and always would. He said there was only one thing that could change the way he looked at me, and that was if I ever gave up. He said I could fall on my face a thousand times, but the time I decided not to get up again, and try again, was the day he would walk away from me.
Those words carried me through the last twenty-five years. I have people constantly say they think I’m brave for surviving a sociopath, but what other alternative is there? My dad taught me that we are more than then the blockades that are thrown in our way. I work hard every day to honor my father, not a fool, but my hero; if I can pay it forward one way for him; I know it would be to help others see that obstacles are never so enormous that we cannot work to find a strategy around or through them. My journey has not been an easy one, and I’m confident there will be more barriers along the way, but life is always a work in progress, and as long as I am moving forward and making a better future for my children, myself, and others around me, then I have lived. Truly lived.