I Have My Father's Toes

Michele Moore

© Copyright 2021 by Michele Moore

Photo of Michele's toes.

I have a vision, a dream, that one day there will be a peace and harmony that every person will live by and uphold — no matter what race, creed, nationality. A lofty goal by today’s evidence of violence and extremism in the name of religion, or just plain ignorance and fear of the unknown. Maybe not in my lifetime, maybe not in my children’s lifetimes, but surely by the time my grandchildren are looking back on the paths they traveled in theirs. The harmony I envision is an earned state of existence, paid for by the way we live, the way we choose to treat others and ourselves. The more we choose to treat others with respect, with love and positive encouragement, the more peace and harmony we achieve, as individuals, as communities, society at large.

Every person has free will that allows them to choose the way they live. We all are bonded through life’s hardships, through the challenges that call upon our inner strength and propensity and choice to persevere. My 57 year journey has taught me the importance of taking time to “smell the roses” .. really smelling them, taking deep breaths that fill us with the little bit of energy to go just that much further towards making it. Realize that we are in control of “our happy”. Time allows us to recharge, to heal inside and out, to mend broken ties, to share some of our happy when others are in need, because there will be times when we need to borrow from others to rebuild again.

I only decided to “choose happy” when I had no other way of dealing with the death of my father. My heart was filled with anger, with disappointment, with a longing to release the pain that ached my soul. Feel your way with me into a soulful discovery and appreciation for a man I once was ashamed to call “Father.” Share in the release, the discovery of the peace in forgiveness by a daughter who felt cheated, sometimes abandoned, by the first man she ever loved .. someone who she expected to be her teacher, her protector, her hero. I set out on this journey to prove the only thing I inherited from my father were his long toes, but what I discovered, and now cherish, are the greater qualities of a man I learned to forgive and love again.

At times, I was elated to finally find a way to get these feelings out; other times, I hurt, afraid to let them (him) go. The pain stems not so much in the release, but in the reliving of the memories as they stream forward and out, teasing, torturing as they move through me, affecting me more deeply than when I was just an little girl. I don’t remember them hurting as much or having any real meaning at all back then. Walking, feeling my way through his life “with his toes” has allowed me to penetrate the shields I built over the years, the defenses I constructed to not mourn, to not care, to not feel being cheated out of a loving, devoted father.

Thoughts race to the present, to the colors and smells and feelings for my father that burst from my mind as I conjure up all my stored memories. Letting go of my dad was one of the most challenging pursuits of my life. Only the loss of a child could be worse, and in a way, that is what it was like letting him go. I was more of a mother to him than a daughter. I became his protector, his solace as his life slowly spiraled downward. Only now do I realize that I enabled him to destroy himself all the while I thought I was helping him pick himself back up and start again. I struggle still with the guilt of not being able to save him– mostly from himself. I loved him with all my heart and hated him just as much in the very same breath. “Daddy’s little girl” I was not, but I yearn, still, to be.

I thought using a different lens to view my father would provide a brighter picture – as my grandmother’s son – only leading me to lament over how much it must have hurt her to see some of the things my father did as he became a man, a husband, a policeman, a father. My grandmother was a beautiful, caring woman who sacrificed a lot for her family. She was never without a smile yet endured so much physical pain — first with breast cancer in 1968, then uterine cancer in the early 70’s, until it killed her in 1978.

Born in 1942, my father was everything to my grandmother. My dad’s father was away at war in the Navy Seabees when my dad was just a baby. By the time he returned from overseas, my grandfather’s life had changed completely — no longer did he have a wife who was totally devoted to him. He had to share his wife with “Skip,” his nickname for my dad. He resented my dad for taking the attention of his precious “Legs” away from him. There was a great constant divide between my dad and his father; as hard as he would try, my dad could do no right in his father’s eyes.

Contrastly, my father was admired and spoiled as the first nephew by all his aunts and uncles. They saw to it that he felt the love and encouragement he could not get from his father. My grandmother’s brothers and sisters (all nine of them) encouraged my dad’s flippant and sometimes irreverent behavior. Instead of correcting him for doing wrong, they just laughed and covered for him. I suspect this is where his sense of entitlement and lack of taking responsibility for his actions stems from. It doesn’t excuse that trait, but it certainly helps explain that difference between him and me.

I only remember bits and pieces of my granddad. He would go to the firehouse after work at General Elevator, and he would have drinks at the bar across the street. I remember one time he took me with him, and I was just three years old. I put on my favorite soft, polyester knit green dress with a belt that closed by a cool magnet clasp in the front. He got a big surprise when he lifted me up to sit me on the bar. I was so proud that I got dressed all by myself, except I had forgotten to put on my panties. He was so embarrassed, he brought me right home and never took me on another outing, as far as I can remember. He died of a heart attack just a year later at the age of 55, coincidentally the same age that his son died in 1998. My father also had a heart attack, but his was self-induced by smoking too much crack on Super Bowl Sunday with a stranger he met that evening on the streets in Essex.

Unless you are also the child of an addict, you cannot understand the pain, the disappointment, the powerlessness, the physical drain of watching a parent destroy themselves. You love them so much; you look up to them; you need them to protect you and teach you. Instead, time after time, you need to find a way to hide your disappointment and resentment because instead, you become their crutch, their guiding light. You fight a constant struggle of wanting them in your life, to share your joy, to be proud of your accomplishments, but at the same time keeping a safe distance so you don’t fall prey to the often messy consequences of their inability to be sober.

The depths of sadness, anger, frustration, the desire to be a normal family, the feeling of being cheated out of the loving support that other children have is not easily understood by those who have not been dealt this family hardship. I’ve only recently forgiven my father for the pain and suffering that his addiction caused me, and in that forgiveness grew a deeper love, compassion, and conviction for doing the right thing if given the chance to help others in similar circumstances. I found comfort in focusing on and rediscovering the loving father he was before his addiction, and I transferred all the anger and resentment to the addiction, instead of to him.

I wonder if my dad lost that survival instinct, or maybe he was surviving the best he knew how. He was on a constant search for relief, for pleasure, for peace. Or, maybe he didn’t want to feel anything because he felt too much .. too much pressure to keep his family from harm, too much fear of losing his mother’s approval; too much love for his children and grandchildren with the shame of the path he was on. Unfortunately, he found solace in a more immediate “fix” — in the escape that narcotics gave him, that smoking marijuana (and stronger substances) gave him, that using the pain killers prescribed for his mother who was suffering with cancer gave him. The dangerous part of an addiction is when it becomes your identity. My father eventually identified with that need to feel good, feel nothing.

I have an addiction .. the need to be close to the water — to the smell, the sound, the site of the blue lines where the sky and water touch. I have an addiction to see the colors of the sunset .. of the rays beaming along the surf’s ups and downs as it journeys to the shore, as it dips into the distant blue edge. I long for the recharge, the release, the high. I didn’t view these needs as addictions until I reflected on how my father needed to have his high. Mine does not deteriorate my life, but all addictions consume us at some level, drive us to do, say, be in a way that detracts from our life’s fulfillment. All I could see was the ugly, life altering addiction of alcohol and drugs that consumed my father. His addiction to alcohol and other substances that drained and depleted him of his energy and love for life only lead to more pain and suffering. There was no release, no recharging, no relief for him except through more and more use until his body couldn’t work anymore. I am sure, given the chance, the support and approval to make a different choice, he would have done so.

It’s OK to be angry; it’s OK to feel cheated; it’s OK to want a parent who leads by example. My father didn’t set out to be an addict. No one chooses to stay on the path of addiction, and the line between wanting and needing the “fix” is usually so vague that by the time one sees the line, it’s too late to choose another path. Let us learn from our parent’s tragedy .. let us be good examples for our children. Recognize that we are all human, we make mistakes, and we may get caught up in things that eat up our time and detract from what truly matters in our families, our relationships. Cherish the people in our life enough to look for those “lines” in the paths we are on .. spend time with our children instead of texting with friends and posting on social media. Take the time to tell those who matter to you that they do, and when you need help destroying “your addictions”, ask for help! Everyone who loves you would do anything to help save your life, as we would have done for our parent. The most loving thing you can do is to ask for help. Those afflicted with addictions are too embarrassed, too ashamed to face the disappointment they caused the ones they love, and then are alone to face the hardest challenge of their life.

We can make our parents’ addictions stand for something …. for strength that can teach a loving path forward! We ourselves can learn from their mistakes, and we can be loving parents, and not be afraid to ask for help when we need it, and to offer help when we see someone who is falling prey to addictions. Take a stand for those you love as well as for yourself, and don’t let addiction win! Let go of the anger, find forgiveness, and give it to your parent so you and they will know peace in this life and the next.

Michele is a native Baltimorean, a Dundalk High School graduate, a Morrissy scholar while attending the College of Notre Dame of MD and Loyola, and holds a Masters of Science degree from Johns Hopkins. While she enjoys the challenge of solving problems with programming (still), co-owned and sold SW Complete, Inc., her favorite pastime is spending time with grandchildren, and frequent visits to the beach (when the two can be combined, she's in Heaven!!)  Michele is looking for a worthwhile endeavor in her retirement, and is testing the waters with writing.

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