Updated: Jul 1
| This is the 289th story of Our Life Logs |
When my father was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2006, I remember an overwhelming feeling of relief. Relief. Who does that? Who has such a blessed feeling when their father has received a death sentence?
If I told you why, would you understand? Could you?
My life began in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, in 1981, a town nearby where I am currently. Everything about that area of Pennsylvania seemed quaint and quiet, a juxtaposition of what life was like living in my house. I remember that my mom Ruthie would constantly garden as a means of escape. I never learned how to escape. In my eyes, and how I was raised, I seemed to be a lesser version of my brother Kevin. A lesser version of myself. My emotions evolved as I evolved. This was part of my father’s legacy passed down to me.
From the beginning, I spent so, so much time trying to be a “good” daughter. I mean, don’t all little girls want attention and affection from their father?
When I was seven, my father, more than likely high off the marijuana he often smoked, burst into my room and started to yell at me. That was the kind of attention I received. I don’t recall why he was screaming at me because all I wanted to do was watch TV. Instead, I watched him pound his fists on the living room furniture around me, creating an uproar. There were many days like this as a child, in which I would cry and give in to his demands in order for him to calm down.
This kind of abuse continued as I grew up.
High school was a struggle. In the summer of 1995, I was diagnosed with Chronic fatigue syndrome (though I would later be diagnosed as depression and fibromyalgia). This constant ache in my bones and in my heart made even my quiet moments painful. Honestly, I’m surprised I even made it out of high school with my GED. Thankfully, my high SAT scores allowed me to receive a grant from Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
College brought some change in the relationship between my father and me. During my freshman year when I came home for a weekend, he surprisingly offered to help me carry books and laundry. But it was raining that weekend, and he carelessly left the trunk open; all my books were ruined to some degree. I started to yell at him, asserting myself for the first time in my entire life. I was surprised by the rush of confidence, but the shock made it disappear almost instantly. I began to cry.
I don’t know if I felt guilty, or incredibly happy, for my outburst. I don’t know if I would even call it an outburst. What was even more shocking was that he apologized to me; again, this was a novel experience.
But just as I thought things were looking up, the rain poured again.
• • •
A semester later, I confronted my father about the $3,000 of my grant money he had borrowed to pay off some debt. After my first experience with asserting myself, I didn’t expect the punishment I received. The next morning, I went to my car to go to work and was surprised to see that all the tires had been removed. My father had left this metal carcass as if to say, “Don’t you dare try that again.” I realized then that there was always going to be a dramatic battle between us as long as he was living.
All of a sudden, there was a third party at war. In 2006, Death pulled out his sheath.
That year, my father was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer on his cerebellum. This was a fact of his life that couldn’t be guilted or shamed into submission. No, he couldn’t treat this diagnosis like he had treated me all my life. The news satisfied my lungs like the first breath of air after sitting at the bottom of a pool. I felt relief. Then I felt guilty. I wondered how much longer he had.
Over the next year, his personality changed and I felt a small sliver of hope. Some days he was softer, others, more intense. By this time, I was attending classes at Lackawanna Junior College in Scranton, and he inquired about my grades. It seemed odd that he wanted to know about my paralegal studies because, throughout my academic career, I felt ignored. This was a small breakthrough in terms of him reaching out to me, but he never had a positive notion toward me ever again after that. I knew then that him dying wasn’t going to change our dynamic. Even in sickness, he was going to hurt me.
It wasn’t until 2009 that I realized I wasn’t the only one getting the brunt of my father’s anger. When I was back home on a break from college that July, I learned that my father had an argument with Kevin when I wasn’t home. My father claimed that Kevin tried to hit him with an iron. Knowing Kevin, I knew he wouldn’t do something like that for no reason. Staring at my father’s red face, I realized that sick or not, he was still the toxic man who had raised us.
But then, just as I was about to match his anger, I watched my father turn to me with weepy eyes and ask the question, “What am I doing wrong in my life?”
For a split second, he looked like a small child who was asking for forgiveness—no, he looked like a hopeless, directionless man who just wanted to be understood. That was the first time I had considered that maybe my father had his own emotional pain hidden deep within him that caused him to lash out at us. It still didn’t change how I felt about him, but I did see him in a different light. I saw him as human.
Immediately, I answered the only way I could. I asked my father what Kevin and I were doing wrong. I said this to comfort him, let him be back in control, hoping he would find a direction so I would never have to see him so scared and innocent again.
Well, it had the opposite effect. He stormed off to his bedroom and slammed the door. I proceeded to work on a paper for one of my courses, promising myself that I would deal with him later. A few minutes later, I heard him leave his room to take some over-the-counter pain medication. He shut his bedroom door once more, and I went back to my homework.
• • •
At this point, my mom came home drunk, which was unusual for my mom to be drunk since she was the person who remained strong whenever my father would create immense negativity in the household, so I watched her. She went into the bedroom, and then quickly came to me in a panic, appearing completely sober.
She had found my father unconscious with a rifle next to him on the bed. We later found out that my father ingested between 200 to 250 individual pills of pain medication—a very alarming amount when considering how it probably affected his liver.
Once 911 was contacted, the house was inundated with first responders. He was taken to a hospital in Carbondale, which was 45 minutes from our house. At the hospital, he was given medicine to cleanse the pain medication out of his system, but his level of toxicity was hard to manage since it was already at a lethal level.
My father remained in the hospital for the entire weekend. It was during this weekend that there was a sense of reprieve. As awful as it sounds, it was a relief to have him out of the house. We could unclench our jaws, release the tension in our shoulders. I felt no inclination to visit him. I know it seems heartless to say we weren’t worried about him, but you have to understand that he was mentally destroying my brother and me. The damage he’d done to me was bleeding into my personal life. At least when he was gone, I could breathe.
In spite of this attempt, his cancer was the reason for his death later that year. It wasn’t until four days after his death that I realized that he was actually gone from my life. Relief washed over me knowing that it was all over.
No more pain and guilt.
No more shame.
No more dad.
What did it all mean?
Since his passing, I have found methods to help me cope. Part of this process included therapy, taking notes during my sessions, and working with a medium. I’ve come to see him in a different light than I would have if he were still living.
I am grieving the absence of a father before and after his death, but hopefully, this form of healing will assist me in the next stages of my journey. I believe in reuniting with him and my family in the next life. Maybe, after my heart has softened, perhaps we can remember the good times. Perhaps we can create some good times. Perhaps these moments of reflection are also the deeper waters that I must learn to swim in. So, for the sake of my heart, I will continue to swim.
This is the story of Sarah Swendsen
Sarah lives in Pennsylvania where she is learning to unpack and recover from the negative memories of her deceased father. Growing up, Sarah never felt like she was good enough for her father who was verbally abusive toward her and caused immense stress. When her father got brain cancer in 2006, she was faced with emotional turmoil between guilt and relief. After his passing, she has found a way to look at those harsh memories in a kinder light through therapy and seeing a medium who mentioned that her father used the word “appalled” in reference to his behavior. Knowing this has helped her view her life with him before, during, and after the battle he lost to cancer in a different light than she would have if he were still living.
This story first touched our hearts on February 28, 2019.
| Writers: Nick Squeri; Colleen Walker | Editor: Kristen Petronio |