Anger seethes at the bottom of all of the emotions whipping around my mind whenever I conjure a thought of my father. Barry Derke, erstwhile volunteer firefighter, tow truck driver, and county jail inmate. Current struggling alcoholic. I’ve wasted many–too many–hours swallowing the bitter bile of hatred that rises from the sad parade of bad memories I have of him. And that hatred shames me, deeply. What makes a man worthy of hate?
Was it the physical abuse when I was a child? The times I had to drag him out of a local bar? The many times he let me down by failing in his role as a father? The loss of the house? The money he took from me? Maybe it was all of that, but none of that. When I think about all of that–all of those bad memories–they make me angry, sure. They make me reduce a man to merely the sum of all of his bad decisions. But they don’t make me hate.
It’s the absence. The deep sense of loss. The feeling that something important was taken from me, though I’m not quite sure what that something is. The fact is that I remember having a father, and I remember what it was like to have that kind of guide and role model in my life. He taught me how to read when I was very young, and because of that I had always been ahead of the curve in reading and writing. Every single test put me in the 99th percentile. Barry is probably, more than anyone, responsible for who I am today.
He taught me how to take things apart and put them back together. He coached my basketball team in elementary school, and one year he was my baseball coach. The story of my father is one of contradiction and contrast. He is, under the alcoholism and the problems that stem from that, a good man. Or, at least, I see him as an inherently good man. But that nature was twisted into something that I grew to hate and despise.
I have tried several times to separate him from me–to push him out of my life so that I might have peace. But I’ve learned that underlying all of that anger is a layer of emotion even deeper, and it swallows up everything else. It’s fear, and it is potent. I have written previously that I am an atheist. I don’t believe that there is an afterlife. I believe that this is all we have and all we experience. As such, the only experiences I will ever have will be in the 72 or so years that I’ll inhabit this planet.
So I fear the day that my father dies and all I have to remember him is the hatred and anger.
Sometimes when I sleep I dream of the time he does and the images haunt me. Things left unsettled. Emotions raw and exposed, never healed, and never able to heal. If we are the sum of our decisions and our actions, Barry is a hard problem to solve. And what am I if I don’t even make an attempt? What does the sum of my decisions and actions equal?
Bitterness? Regret? Both of them are ever present in my mind, but I’d like to think that, over the years, they have lost power. And there are so many variables to track. I learned of an older half sister that doesn’t want anything to do with me after earnest attempts to reach out. How am I supposed to factor that disappointment in? Does Barry bear the blame for the intense sense of rejection I felt when it became apparent I had no place in my sister’s life?
Despite all of that, I strive to give him the benefit of the doubt. I try so very dearly to keep the hope alive that he will change. That maybe he can put the bottle down and never pick it back up. Foolish. There’s always some trigger. There’s always an empty bottle with dregs dripping slowly onto the carpet, an indelible stain on my efforts to bridge the divide.
When I ran for State Representative in 2014 he was arrested for a DUI and evading arrest by leading police on a chase. He was in jail for almost a whole year.
And yet, even after all of that I did my best to forgive him and reestablish a relationship with him. Even after all of the indignities of my youth I still saw enough good in him to make the attempt. The feelings are still so fucking raw from all of the failures, and as time goes on they only compound. Every year, after one of our setbacks, I toy with the idea of cutting him out of my life and moving on. Soon the anger starts to subside and I slowly let him creep back in.
I do not, at this point, believe that he can change. I do not believe that, after all he’s been through, he really wants to change in a substantive way. So where do I go from here?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. Part of me wants to just accept the most cynical of my instincts and just take it for what it is, and that’s the part that’s winning my inner struggle. We had made plans for my birthday last year, which happened to have fallen on Thanksgiving. My fiancee and I were to go to his place and enjoy some wine and dessert, but his partner texted me that very day to tell me that he had hurt his back, took a pain pill, and went to sleep.
It was only later that I learned, from my mother, that he was drunk. And this is the pattern that’s so familiar to me, and what makes my cynical nature win out. My father is defined by two things in my mind: his drunkenness and his absence, and he lived up to both.
I ask myself when did the positives become outnumbered by the negatives of Barry? Or, rather, when did the weight of the negatives overcome the weight of the positives? Like so many of my questions surrounding the man, this one is unanswered and I doubt it ever will be. I know I put my finger on the scale to try to balance out the negatives, and I struggle even now with how far I’m willing to press down on the scale.
And I’m putting less and less force into it. I skipped the Derke Family Christmas to avoid him, a move I already regret. It didn’t help that he and I wound up in the same room that night, anyway, and it was extremely awkward. I remove some more of the force I apply to the scale and I’m close to being able to let the gravity of his life win out over my own and separate myself from him.
But then I get a text a week after the new year: “U get ur card?”
To which I replied, an hour later, “Not yet.”
I got the kitschy card a few days later. It was cheap, and it was obviously reused; another name in another place on the card was kind of a dead giveaway. All it said was “Merry Christmas, Love Dad and Brenda.” A $50 gift card to a local gas station slipped out of the card and onto the floor.
I sat on the card for a few more days, turmoil playing out in my mind. Do I respond? Do I let him know I actually got the card? How much do I say before he thinks he can come back in? I do not know and it’s tearing me up inside.
I’m planning to move to Philadelphia sometime around June. This is not to run away from Barry or any of my struggles here–or so I want to believe–but to run to my future with my fiancee. The time for reconciliation with my father feels to be slipping away. As I’m going through the things I want to take with me, or leave behind, I come across an old photo of my father holding me as an infant.
I stare silently at the glossy slip of memory for ages. At one point I feel tears welling in my eyes.
I put my finger back on the scale and text back: “I got your card. Thank you.”