When I was in my early 20s and still living at home after graduating from college, I fractured my hand in an accident and sat in the living room holding it in mild shock. My father came home, and I quickly covered my swelling hand because I didn’t want him to go into a rage. I was underemployed and still on his insurance plan, and the cost of the treatment would fall to him. He could tell I was hiding my hand. He demanded I show it to him, and I reluctantly did.
He told me that he was going to have my mother take me to the emergency room. There was no rage. He responded to his youngest daughter’s needs that day with the right composure.
My father was one of my accidental spiritual teachers. He offered me a lesson in the formidable challenge of understanding and forgiveness when a person provides us many reasons to withhold those things with a clenched heart. I thought about my father on the first day of the new year while wondering whether our nation and world are permanently trapped in vicious cycles of conflict and trauma.
When my sisters and I were young, it was hard to know what kind of father we were going to get. He was a functional alcoholic, though fortunately he stopped drinking when I was 14 because a brush with death related to his alcoholism and a hard-charging medical professional convinced him to. Though his manner softened over time, he was, to the end, filled with combustible anger, deep insecurities and emotional wounds he suffered in childhood that weren’t his fault.
When my father drank, the alcohol catalyzed his worst tendencies. He had no constructive mental tools to deal with his pain and the indignities he suffered at work, which played on an endless loop in his head, and he never sought the help of a professional or a support group, though my mother begged him to.
During the worst parts of my childhood, he relentlessly targeted my mother, my sisters and me in attempts to relieve his internal agitation. Words were his punches. Our many bruises were not physical.
But that abuse isn’t the full story of who my father was.
When he died in hospice in 2018 from pulmonary fibrosis, a disease born from his steel mill work that stole his breath and dignity, I set about the necessary task for his wake of finding photos of him as a boy. What I saw in those old black-and-white images from the 1940s was a sweet, gentle child.
I think about that smiling boy when I remember how my father’s face would change anytime he talked about birds. He became an avid bird-watcher as a boy delivering newspapers. He knew their calls. He set up several bird feeders and bird houses in the backyard of our home in northwest Indiana. He had at least one bird eat out of his hand. He had several ceramic figurines of birds in his bedroom, and later, many of them watched over him in hospice.
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As much as I struggled as a girl to love my dad, I wanted him to be my father. Shortly after my birth, my mother had a medical emergency and had to return to the hospital for surgery. My father took over my care until she recovered. That forged a bond. That bond is why I ruined a new pair of suede boots, not easily afforded by my parents, because I wanted to hang out with my dad while he gardened in the mud after a drenching rain. That bond is why my dad would often allow me as an adult to challenge him in a way that he would not have tolerated from my mom or sisters. That bond, along with my love for my warm and humane mother, is why I was willing to start driving once a week to Indiana from Chicago to do the physical tasks my parents could no longer handle due to age and failing health. Even though that meant regularly dealing with my father’s chauvinism and controlling ways all over again.
That bond is why I grew to treasure the lunches he and I would get at McDonald’s during my visits. We weren’t of the same political persuasion, but my father and I would sit and talk about politics and global affairs with mutual regard.
That bond is why my dad became one of my favorite comedians. He delivered sharp, wry observations of people and life in deceptively simple language. Because he grew up in a northwest Indiana mill town that borders the Far South Side, he would rattle off words like “catawampus” and “frunchroom,” to my delight, with the linguistic flourishes you’d hear from an old-school Chicagoan.
That bond is why, during a phone call I made in the stairwell at Tribune Tower before one of my work shifts, my dad opened up to me about what led him to become an alcoholic, a subject he otherwise flat-out refused to discuss. Also during that call, he told me what it was like to drive in the blinding snow and pitch-black darkness of the country for predawn shifts at an Indiana power utility. He described the cruelties he faced at work from rough-hewn men. In that moment, I profoundly understood, for perhaps the first time, the many sacrifices he had made and the financial pressures he had withstood to provide for a family of five that had to subsist on a single income.
It is because of my father’s poor example that I learned the importance of accountability, boundaries and self-awareness to heal trauma and do right by others. And it is because of my father that I discovered the reconciliation and love that are possible if we’re willing to risk forgiveness.
Colleen Kujawa is a content editor who works with the Tribune Editorial Board.