Nanny always said, "you will never get a ticket to Heaven if you don't get forgiveness on Earth." I think what she meant by that was that a person should try to make up for all of the wrongs they had done to others before it came time to meet their maker. Today that would be called 'karma', but Nanny loved trains and she was good at spinning things her own way.
I thought about my grandmother's words on the day of my father's funeral. I did not attend my father's funeral. It was a promise I had made to myself decades earlier and it was a promise I kept. And I don't regret it. While his cold dead body was being lowered into a hole in Virginia, I was sunning myself on a beautiful beach a thousand miles away, proud that I had remained true to my promise. Funerals, after all, are for mourning the loss of a loved one, and for paying last respects, and my father deserved neither my love nor my respect. What he did deserve, or rather, what he needed, at least according to Nanny's theory, was my forgiveness, or else, as she had so eloquently put it, he would never get his ticket to Heaven.
The speculation that I was the only thing that stood between my father's entry into the Pearly Gates or his plunge into the depths of Hell was...totally awesome. I enjoyed the delicious feeling of power that it gave me. But with power comes responsibility, and deep down inside I knew that I could never live with myself if I thought I had kept a soul out of Heaven. I knew I should try to find a way to forgive him, but there was an awful lot to forgive.
My father was terrible and terrifying. Beatings were commonplace in our house. My brother and I were beaten regularly with belts, sticks, fists, and anything else he could get his hands on in the heat of the moment. And there were a lot of heated moments. You didn't really have to 'do' anything to warrant his heavy hand. All you had to do was annoy him (asking him to pass the potatoes qualified, as did taking the last biscuit) and you would likely go flying through the window.
My father was 'old school' and dealt with any form of disobedience swiftly and, depending on his mood and his current blood alcohol level, often cruelly. He didn't care about the welts and bruises he left on little backs and legs, and he cared even less about the scars he left on little hearts and souls. He had never heard of 'time-outs', but if he had, I imagine he would have sneered at the notion. I can picture it now, my father towering over the the unfortunate teacher or counsellor who had dared to suggest such a thing, yelling, "Time-outs are for pussies! I'll give you a time-out! I'll knock you on your f-ckin ass, you walleyed, buck-toothed sonofa..." Well, you get the idea.
My father's odd attitude towards corporal punishment was made even odder by the fact that he never got beatings as a child! How he learned to be so cruel to his own children will always be a mystery to me. His childhood was generally a happy one. He and his eight siblings grew up on a houseboat in western Kentucky. Even though the family was poor (he was born the year of the 1929 Stock Market Crash), he spent his childhood doing everything he wanted to do...he fished and trapped in the Green River, he hunted deer, and he built forts and tree houses with his brothers. He loved his mother and his father and he adored where he lived. He ran wild, this boy of the woods, and he loved every minute of it.
But sometime between there and here, he got all messed up inside. As soon as he could afford to, he moved his family to the country where we were isolated and had little contact with our other relatives. It was there, in rural Virginia, where he began his reign of terror.
My father considered his children, like everything else in his house, his possessions to do with as he pleased, and it often pleased him to do terrible things to us. Beatings were just one of frequent horrors we suffered. He would tie us to fence posts and leave us for hours in the sun. He delighted in using us for his own entertainment and he especially enjoyed humiliating us in front of the rare visitor to our house. Sometimes he would make us strip naked and streak through the house in front of total strangers. He thought that was funny. Once, to show off his skill with a bow and arrow, he forced my little brother, who was nine at the time, to hold an apple in his teeth so he could shoot it out of his mouth, like William Tell. When my little brother fainted from fear before my father could draw his bow, he got a terrible beating with a belt for embarrasing my father in front of his 'company'. The company never returned. Another time, we were forced to watch, in grief and horror, while our father killed our dog by shooting it in its head. The little dog's only crime was getting in the way of this insane man.
Such was the stuff of our childhood. By the time I was a teenager I had been beaten, tortured and sexually molested repeatedly by my father. My mother never once stepped in to do a thing to stop him (but I will save that for another story). By age 15 I had a pronounced stutter, I flinched whenever someone came into a room, and I was failing miserably in school because my parents hated to see me studying. They considered it a waste of time. I should be cleaning the house, or washing dishes, or taking care of my youngest brother, or doing the laundry. Embarrassed to tell my teachers that my parents didn't care enough to look at my report card, much less sign it, I secretly learned how to forge their signatures. Eventually, I became quite good at that and I would even give myself 'compliments' from them from time to time such as: "We are very proud of Gail's work", "Gail studies very hard", "Gail spends a lot of time studying", and so on. The teachers never had a clue. No one ever knew the misery we endured.
I honestly don't know how I survived. My two brothers became alcoholics and perpetuated our father's legacy by beating up their own families, subsequently losing everything. But, somehow, by the grace of God, I managed to survive and even go on to lead a decent life. By sneaking off to study under the covers with a flashlight I graduated from high school with average grades, and with the help of a teacher, I eventually taught myself how to speak without stuttering. I didn't make it to college, but I never did drugs, or drink too much, or become promiscuous. And I didn't get pregnant until after I was married. I became successful in my chosen career field and I have lived my entire life without beating up a child. I consider that the epitomy of success. Today I have a good marriage and a wonderful relationship with my daughter and my grandchildren. Life is good, my father is cold in the ground, and the horrors of that terrible time are long past. Yet, there was still that forgiveness thing hanging over my head.
How do you forgive someone who has hurt you so badly? That was the question I grappled with on the day of my father's funeral. I would continue to ponder that question many times over the next few months, always coming back to the same thing...what, exactly, does it mean to forgive? By forgiving him, would I be throwing myself away and discounting all of the pain I had suffered at his hands? He had never suffered any penalties for the things he had done to me and I had received no justice for his deeds. Shouldn't there have been penalties? Shouldn't there have been justice? My emotions alternated between self-pity and justifiable anger. Yet, a little voice, way in the back of my head, kept whispering over and over and over, "Forgive him".
Almost three months to the day after my father's funeral, I am shopping in Wal-mart when my eye is suddenly drawn to a large blue helium balloon with a ridiculous, but very happy-looking, beaver on it. The grinning beaver is wearing a fishing hat and sitting in a small boat. Above its head, in huge letters, are the words "Bon Voyage". Perfect, I thought, my father liked to trap beavers.
Back home I scrawled out a note and taped it to the balloon, then I walked to the beautiful stretch of beach that had become my favorite go-to place whenever I needed solitude. The sun was setting and the beauty of the crimson and orange sky moved me to tears as I thought, "I am so lucky!" Bowing my head, I gave thanks to God for all of the wonderful things, and people, that I now have in my life, and I prayed for the little girl who had been so badly hurt so many years ago, that she would one day heal. Then I prayed for all the little girls, and boys, who are still being hurt today.
I opened my fingers and let the string holding the balloon slowly slip away. As the wind carried it upwards towards an evening star, I stared after it until I could no longer make out the words that I had scribbled on the note: "God, please forgive my father for all his sins and consider this his ticket to Heaven. Signed, his daughter, Gail." As soon as the balloon was out of sight, I turned towards home, feeling a bit relieved that my father had finally gotten his ticket to Heaven. And I thought, perhaps, so had I?