1.25.2006

Myself (or someone like me) v.4

I hate crying. It's not for some over-inflated sense of manly toughness or machismo. I just really don't like it. Some find weeping a release, a cathartic expression of intense grief or frustration that can't be bottled up any longer. My wife is one of these people. But I am not. Tears make my eyes burn. And loose snot trickling down into my mouth doesn't feel so hot either. I usually feel stuffy and worn out, blurry, and beaten after I cry. And sometimes faintly nauseated. So I avoid it. When the tears do fall, they often come out with such explosive force that it adds embarrassment to the already unpleasant experience. Because of that, the moments that I do cry end up being doubly humiliating. Two experiences in particular illustrate exactly what I'm talking about. These events, oh internet public, have never really been related to anyone before. Only two people in the world (other than me) know about them. (Which just highlights the false sense of security and anonymity that these blogs give to their authors.) (1) The coach. I was 20 and in college. I was in my head football coach's office. He was busily prattling on about my value as a team member and, therefore, challenging me to be more involved in the optional weekend practices during the off-season. With the trophies and the photos of him with Woody and Bo and Lou Holtz lining the shelves and windowsills, I should have been trembling with pride or athletic awe. Or at least teeming with testosterone. But I wasn't. Instead, I was thinking about the last weekend--how instead of staying on campus and working out or studying, I drove the two hours down snow-bound I-71 to my parents' house where I postured as some sort of domestic guardian. My dad had gone back to drinking again after a 5-year period of sobriety. And, as they say about alcoholics, when you fall back off the wagon, it's as if you never got on it in the first place. He was as mean and manipulative as he had been when I was in middle school and before. The big difference was that I now outweighed him by 50 lbs. and stood almost 4 inches taller. Yet, as Cap Peterson was known to repeat from social gathering to family dinner table: "It isn't the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog." My dad was meaner than me; he had a lot more fight. I was brought up learning to fear him down to my bowels and he knew that in a pinch, I would turn the other cheek and he would beat the living shit out of me. What I didn't know is that, now in his mid-50s, he was as scared of me as I was of him. So we sparred in some sort of Cold War weekend after weekend, holiday after holiday. Neither of us broached drinking or fighting, but we could see in each others' eyes that we were ready to hit each other if it came to it. When my coach asked me to commit to coming to practices through the remainder of the winter, all the frustration and confusion, the tangled emotions that I felt having to stand around my house pretending to protect my mom and sister from my drunken bar-fighter of a father burst out of my face. Few things are as humiliating as weeping uncontrollably in front of your college football coach. And unlike all those "Coach Carter" moments that we see in movies, my coach was as uncomfortable as I was. He told me to get a hold of myself. I told him I wouldn't be attending more practices during winter, summer, or in the fall. I had played football for 13 seasons, broken multiple bones and torn crucial ligaments to lay upon its altar. And I did it, in part, because I thought it made my dad proud of me. I had learned to doubt my father over those 13 years--and I didn't think that it mattered whether I played college football or not, really. Mostly I just wanted my family to work and I thought that if I wasn't there, bad things would happen. (2) The Marine. Bad things did happen, but they had nothing to do with me being there or not. I grew weary of the Cold War over the next year. I stopped coming home. Entirely. I spent my new found free-time doing things I liked to do. I became a grunge-music fanatic; I wrote "poetry"; I played rugby for fun; I made tons of new friends. At home, things did get more violent. My sister threatened to run away unless my mom left my dad (which she didn't want to do). But after a series of horrible events, they agreed to get out of there and live a life in hiding. I mostly avoided the entire situation. But on January 25th, 1996--ten years ago today--my dad brought us all out of self-imposed exile by hanging himself in the garage. I barely cried at the funeral. The whole thing seemed like it was happening to someone else, somewhere else. In fact, I went back to college after barely a week off. Perhaps because my profs were sympathetic, I did better in my classes than I ever had before. My advisor encouraged me to consider grad school. Friends and leaders with InterVarsity encouraged me to get more serious about my faith and consider leadership. I met Brooke shortly after. In all this, I never shed so much as a tear. My grief was mingled with latent anger and, perhaps more than anything else, confusion. Why did I both love and hate my father intensely? Why could I not just get the pain "over with" and move on? For the most part, my dad's life and death barely entered into my waking mind. Why, then, when I closed my eyes did I become convinced that he was still alive somewhere--waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike at me? I talked to counselors about everything. They told me it would take time to grieve--and aside from that, had no answers. But I never really grieved; I never cried. Didn't want to, really. It was a phone call some three years later that initiated my next crying fit. The conversation started normally enough. "Hello?" "Yeah, is a Carl Peterson there...?" ...which usually meant that it was a telemarketer calling from an old list that still had my dad listed as head-of-household. It irritated me that even several years later his name wasn't erased. They should have been asking for my mom, who had always made all the financial decisions anyway. It seemed unjust. It pissed me off. Figuring I would shock the telemarketer into hanging up and leaving us alone (it had worked before), I blurted out with a smile on my face: "Nope--he's dead." There was the usual awkward silence. But then, instead of a "click" or an "I'mterriblysorrygoodbye" there was a labored, "What? When did he die? What did he die of?" I couldn't take the hint: "Well, if you really want to know, he killed himself." This time, there were obviously choked-back tears. "Um...well...this is Drill Sgt. ___ ____. My nickname was 'EZ'--your dad would have called me that if he talked about me. I was a student of his in '89--in his marketing class. And I just wanted to thank him. He saved my life..." Any hint of sarcasm on my face faded. My mom walked in the room and knew something was wrong. "...I talked about killing myself all the time. I went to your dad after class one time. I told him how my dad abused us, how I was good for nothing, how I should just end it. Mr. Peterson got me interested in school. He drove me to and from work a couple times a week. I talked to him on the phone when I got really depressed. After he got me through graduation, I went to the Marines and I actually made it to sergeant. I figured I should thank him. It's been on my mind for a while now and I just kept putting it off. I can't believe he would kill himself after everything he did for me--for everyone in his classes...." I'm not sure what EZ said after that. It was the first time I'd really cried since my dad had died--and it was a hard, hard cry that seemed to last for hours and hours. It made me hoarse and embarrassed and not "better." My mom was there. She didn't have to say anything except, "He was a good man sometimes. Just not usually to us."

11 Comments:

Blogger Andy Whitman said...

I'd say that all of those things are worth crying about, Erik. Thank you for sharing them. And how painful it must be to remember them on a day like this.

For what it's worth, I don't think these things ever totally go away. And I don't mean that in any defeatist sense, either. I believe that there can be real, substantial healing in this life -- physical, emotional, psychological -- and that the sting of traumatic events like the ones you describe can be lessened. But the sting never totally goes away. We carry some sorrows with us to our graves.

I think it's good that your father remains something of an enigma to you. How could such a heartless bastard who caused so much grief do the kind, generous things that EZ talked about? But he did. And so it's good to see the whole picture, even if it makes his life less black-and-white and more puzzling.

My mother committed suicide thirteen years ago after numerous failed attempts. She finally got it right. Before that she spent a couple decades as a miserable, violent drunk who alternated between weepy self-pity and bouts of chasing her kids around the house with a butcher knife. And so I think maybe I can understand the ambivalence of your reaction to your father's death. I didn't weep at my mother's funeral, either, or for years afterward, for that matter. But, like you, I've since come to recognize and remember things about her that have changed my impression of her from one of terror to one of terror mixed with pity and sadness. She had good qualities, too.

I hope that you'll be able to remember some of the good qualities, forgive your dad for who he was, and weep over the great loss. It is a great loss. Much love to you, my still unmet friend.

1/25/2006 2:52 PM  
Anonymous soultroller said...

Hey there.....
I stumbled onto(was led? I often confuse the two)your blog today...
My goodness....
I was wandering, imagining, seeking something to help me make sense of the relationship I have with my dying father... he too an alcoholic. As I write this my daughter (18) is in Fla. visiting him, taking the initiative that I failed to take. I don't know exactly why I chose to respond here, except to say.... my goodness.. Thanks for sharing.
Peace & love & God's grace to you.

1/25/2006 2:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

e

i agree with what andy said. sadly in the last post, i wrote asking if it was your dad's death. i wrote that in hesitation.

you and your mom were very good to me the few times i was able to talk about my dad's death. his circumstances are seperate from yours and well as andy's mom, but it is difficult none the less.

i think it is necessary to carry the grief with us. thorugh the whole mess, God did create your dad and had some purpose for his life. i agree with your mom 100% in that he probably was good to people other than his family. to me that is what makes it hard. the biggest irony i find is that years after my dad has passed away,i catch myself praying for him occasionally. not to say in protection or salvation, but it help me heal the wounds.

hang in there, i am sure that your dad would have been very proud to see what you have become.

matt

1/25/2006 3:00 PM  
Blogger zena said...

erik peterson.

alot of things make up that name for me. i miss you and your family. thanks for being honest.

i've been asking god and anyone who'll listen lately, why is it some of us have pasts that will never be polite conversations?

i'm coming to believe that after we're functioning alright and healing, really healing, that god has great purpose for those who live through such younger days.

great purpose being however you can lead others to freedom. and when i look at your life i think you know that and are trying to get there.

i'm so sorry that this was your family. i look forward with much joy to what lies ahead for you; to what you have for all of us.

~zena

1/25/2006 3:26 PM  
Blogger John McCollum said...

Thanks, Erik.

I miss you.

1/25/2006 3:27 PM  
Blogger Scott Sloan said...

E, thanks for sharing this. I'll be praying for you with re: your father's death. I do not have the best relationship with my father, and people that he coached and worked with at OSU say such kind things about him, yet he couldn't relate to his sons. I got choked up reading this post because it hits home with me as well.

Let's keep in touch.

Scott

1/25/2006 3:32 PM  
Anonymous Ray Grieselhuber said...

Erik,

Thanks for writing about this.

When you told me about your dad last year, it was the first time I had heard about it. The picture of your dad as the drill sgt. was not the one that I was left with after we spoke and I'm glad to have it. It fits in better with the way (after meeting him only one time) I remembered him from when we were kids: a little scary but solid, and good.

It's always strange to see how other's saw our fathers, especially if they died when we were young. I still have people tell me about my dad, and they almost always start crying when they talk about how kind he was to them. He was kind to us, too, but I also saw his weaknesses. Nobody is all good or all bad, but almost everybody is more good than bad.

1/26/2006 1:58 PM  
Blogger Dylan said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1/27/2006 5:51 AM  
Blogger Dylan said...

Thanks...for not letting fear control your fingers as you typed this post. I don't think you'll understand the impact of your honesty for a long time. I know it touched me deeply this morning as I stumbled upon your blog.

Miss you, ya long-haired hippy.

Cheers,

D

1/27/2006 5:54 AM  
Blogger mg said...

thanks for sharing this erik.

1/27/2006 7:39 AM  
Blogger 3rp said...

Hi Erik -

As you said some time ago to me regarding my story...wow.

Thanks for sharing these deep and hard things. You are an eloquent and gentle communicator in writing, especially regarding such tough topics.

I especially resonated with what Zena posted about how some of our pasts will never be topics of polite conversation. Now that I am nearly 36, I'm finally coming to realize how incredibly heavy many of the things that have happened to me are, especially to those who either have never experienced such things, or have never dealt with the things they have experienced.

Another thing that strikes me as amazing is how different our dads often are to others who are not in the family. Several stories leap to mind as I type this of friends who never knew the good their dads did...only the tough treatment...until he passed, and then all the stories from others came out...and then the obvious question...where was that care for ME?

Human life is so strange.

Thanks again for sharing, and may the peace of Christ be with you as more of these anniversaries pass.

Rich

1/27/2006 5:17 PM  

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