My father kept an old Yamaha acoustic guitar in his bedroom. Sometimes I ran my child-round fingertips over the strings just to see if it was still in tune. It was, then. I whispered secrets into the sound hole, and it always whispered back. It smelled of dust and spruce and something metallic, like a serrated steel file.
And I still remember the snug leather case where he kept his harmonica and the satisfying snap on its flap. I only saw him play these instruments a handful of times, and most of those were before he lost his job at Hanford and we moved west to Seattle. The harmonica ended up in the junk drawer, between spools of frayed thread and lost buttons and tarnished pennies.
My father loved Willie Nelson, John Denver, the Eagles, and the Beatles—that greatest hits playlist of white men born in the 1950s who came of age in the 1970s. He once had owned a motorcycle but sold it off before I entered kindergarten. There are photos, somewhere, of him with my mother on a beach, both with bandannas knotted around their foreheads and smiles of the kind I never saw.
* * *
My father was a software engineer. He was a gardener and a backpacker and a photographer.
He was also my abuser.
For a long time, I hated him. I carried rage toward him like a loaded pistol, and I would pull it out just to provoke him.
Defiance was the only power I had.
* * *
Distance and age can change things. My father is not a monster. It is only convenient to think so. He is a man, like many men, with secret convictions of his own supremacy and an unfaltering assurance of his own rightness.
I would have given my right arm to see him falter.
But he never did.
That is the way with abusers. And it is why they are so difficult for the uninitiated to spot. They, too, complain about taxes and water their lawns and pay their mortgages. They buy their groceries at the same cash register you do. They drop off their children at the same school where you take yours, and even abusers can volunteer and throw birthday parties and be kind to other people’s children.
The fact of their reality terrorizes the profoundly anxious, so much so that they would rather blame the abuser’s victims than accept the truth. The truth being that abusers are just like us, only with worse tempers and an entitlement that can swallow entire worlds. Especially those of children. They speak the language of conviction and righteousness, of crusades and conquests against injustice, particularly those that affect them. And none of it is a lie. They really do believe it.
* * *
I think I stopped hating my father only after life broke me, too. After I had left an abusive husband, I was engulfed with grief. And I realized my heart had been so full of rage that there had been no space for the sadness.
In the end, it was the grief that saved me.
I took the bullets out of that pistol I carried and threw them into a river, along with the gun.
Anger can get you out of abuse, but it can’t help you heal from it. Not once you’re safe. And by that time, I hadn’t seen my father in five years.
It was time to let go.
My father taught me that, because he never did.
His abuse will always be part of my history. But so will the afternoons that he taught me to shuck corn or to spot spittlebug nymphs in June. He lit fires under the stars and the flames flickered over his face, and beneath the pines alongside Anthony Lake we were all happy for one brief, glorious moment.
No one is ever just one thing.
I loved my father then, as I love him now. But I have learned that some people can’t be trusted with love, and you have to take it away from them and give it to someone else. But it never means you stop feeling it.