The Ninth Step
Guideposts|September 2020
The Ninth Step
Her alcoholic father was ready to make amends for the past. Was she ready to forgive him?
JILL SUTTIE

THE PHONE RANG IN MY OFF-fice. I was preparing for an evening talk at the university where I worked.

My heart sank when I heard the caller’s voice. It was my father.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” Dad asked.

“Sure, but I can’t talk long,” I said. This was my usual tactic with Dad: set a limit, keep it short.

“This won’t take long,” he said. “My therapist told me I should call each of my daughters and ask them a question. So I want to ask you.”

My heart sank even further. What could this be about? And why was he doing this to me right in the middle of my workday?

“Did you feel that I loved you as a child?” he said.

I was 34 years old, married and working at the University of San Francisco while earning a doctorate in psychology. I had been an independent adult for nearly 16 years. I’d even lived abroad. My husband, Don, and I planned to have children soon.

Yet my father still had the power to stop me in my tracks.

My father was an alcoholic and had been since my childhood. Growing up with him had been a nightmare for my mother, my two older sisters, and me. We lived in fear of his drunken rages. He berated and humiliated us, meting out harsh punishments seemingly at random. Even as an adult, I feared his abuse and suffered from the emotional scars he’d inflicted.

For years, I had lived in Santa Barbara, far away from my dad. But poor job opportunities and a broken relationship convinced me to move back to the Bay Area, nearer to my father, where I eventually found a job, met my husband and started graduate school.

Meanwhile, my father had fallen apart. He and Mom divorced, and he lived by himself in a trailer park. Lately he had begun reaching out to me in ways that were, frankly, surprising. And unwanted.

I didn’t know how to answer his question. I knew what I wanted to say. But could I say it?

“No,” I said in a burst of honesty. “Maybe I knew it in an abstract way, but I didn’t feel it.”

Dad was silent. He seemed stunned. He ended up mumbling something about having to go, then hung up. I sat there afterward, shaking. But it was a relief to have finally spoken the truth.

I told Don about the call when I got home. My husband was the opposite of Dad. Upbeat, loving, stable, articulate about his feelings. He loved me and supported my work and my efforts to heal from the damage of my childhood.

“Do you think your dad will get back in touch?” Don said.

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” I said. But in my heart, I knew those words weren’t entirely true. My feelings about Dad were more complicated than I let on.

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September 2020