The Birthday Cake

“It’s just another day,” said Daddy as we were about to sing “Happy Birthday.”

No, Daddy, it’s not! I silently screamed. This is the day you were born. That makes it special. Why can’t you feel special? Mama’s showing you you are. She made you a cake.

When Mama made my birthday cake every year, I felt special. I had the same feeling about my brothers and sister when their turns came. Our mother had singled out each of us as being unique and important.

Our birthdays never came with presents. Daddy’s alcoholism stole that money. But we six children could count on a two-layer cake with buttercream frosting from Mama.

I wished my father, wrapped in alcoholic tantrums, did not say and do awful things to Mama. In spite of it all, every November 16 she would honor him on his birthday with a cake. In her heart she thought of him as special, and she wanted him to believe it of himself.

Eventually, it was for Daddy only that Mama made a birthday cake. Her children had gradually left home. Year after year, though, we all returned with our growing families for Christmas dinner. One of those Christmas nights, Mama started a new tradition.

“Come into the kitchen,” she called to her grandchildren. “We’re going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Jesus. I made Him a cake.”

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The Sober Year

Daddy did more than stay sober my eighth-grade year. He also went to church, and he went without missing a Sunday. To an outsider, sobriety and religion may look like a blissful combination. To me–an insider–it was anything but.

Words erupting from my father’s mouth in volcanic rage each inch of the mile to church were the same trash that spewed out when he was drunk. Not only was I frozen in familiar fear, I was confused. Why was he being Mr. Hyde? Daddy was sober. Why wasn’t he Dr. Jekyll?

Halfway through that year, one thing changed. A baby boy usurped my two-year-old sister’s space on Mama’s lap. My three other brothers and I still sat stony silent in the back seat while Daddy’s loud curses blanketed the newborn too.

And thus our family went to church Sunday morning after Sunday morning until my father received a pin acclaiming perfect Sunday school attendance. He seemed eerily glad when he stated, “I’m not going back. They’re a bunch of hypocrites.”

From that point on, my father attended church occasionally. His drunken sprees outnumbered those. There was one redeeming event, however, in that sober year.

It was when my mother was going to give birth to my fourth brother. She stood stoically at the stair landing, ready for Daddy to take her to the hospital. All of a sudden, she shrieked. My father rushed across the room, reached his arms around her, and moaned, “Ohhhh, does it hurt?”

That was the first time I saw Daddy embrace Mama or show her a hint of affection. His flickering tender moment for my mother has never gone out in my heart.

How true is the proverb:  “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy” (Proverbs 14:10 ESV)!

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Now I Lay Me Down In Peace

It was a scary prayer my mother taught me to say on my knees. Being so young, I knew no other and dutifully prayed:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Afterwards, I’d lie in bed worrying I might not wake up. I wasn’t sick or old like the woman in the newspaper who was forty. Why should I die?

That bedtime scenario, though, was not as frightening as the nights I was jolted awake with words that lacerate the heart. My drunken father would be on a tirade and my mother, the silent victim of his attacks. With a filthy cord of profanity, he lashed out at her. Some of his barbed criticisms and accusations I understood. Others, I grew into.

Whenever I heard rushing footsteps on the heels of my mother’s terror shrieks, I was afraid she would die at my father’s hands. I’d hold my breath and hope for the slamming of the screen door. That would mean my mother was safe somewhere out there in the dark.

As the house then turned deathly silent, I’d dread my father’s alcoholic side would burst into our bedroom and beat my brothers and me. Mr. Hyde never did.

Now I lay me down in peace. I have no fear of being slapped awake with violent outbursts before dawn. Often, while basking in my bedroom’s tranquility, I lull my heart with Psalm 4:8: “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety” (KJV).

I am old now and not afraid to die before I wake. In my finite mind’s imagination, it looks like the best picture. If, however, I should open my eyes again to this world’s morning, I can recall another prayer that came through my mother. This one is on a piece of linen she embroidered while expecting me, her firstborn of six:

Now I wake

 

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The Snowball Mystery

Aloud to no one in particular, my mother said, “I wonder if she’ll cry that much when I die.”

At dusk a neighbor had come to the backdoor, telling her she had seen our new puppy dead in the street. Momentarily stunned, Mama said, “But I just let him out.”

I erupted in tears as if there were no tomorrow. Gone forever was something that would love me without any strings attached. Finally, my parents removed the death’s sting and gave me hope when they promised I could choose and name the next dog.

Months later my brothers and I ran out the front door heading for a schoolmate’s house. She had free puppies. As we bounded off the porch, my father called behind us, “Make sure it’s a boy.”

Daddy was waiting at the door when we returned empty-handed. “What happened?”

My heavy heart answered, “Only girls are left.” When he then told me a girl would be okay, I ran all the way back by myself for the white one and named her Snowball.

I grieved for Snowball when my father took her to Virginia for the three-dollar operation. Not because she was “fixed” so that she could never have puppies but because of what happened to her two days later.

Her relentless barking and straining for freedom from the chain anchored in my grandparents’ farmyard caused the inevitable. Snowball burst her stitches. I could only watch and listen to Snowball’s piercing yelps as my father and grandfather held her while my grandmother closed the incision with her needle and thread.

Unfortunately, that was the first and only time Snowball was tied to anything except my heart. She loved all of us, but she showed me I was her favorite when we moved to the row house with my own bedroom. Every school day when I came home, she was waiting for me on the backdoor stoop.

Rarely did I pet her. I didn’t like the strong odor it left on my hands. That guilt chased me when I’d walk over Snowball, careful not to step on her thumping tail.

Her routine presence on the steel stoop gave me some stability in my teeter-totter world. Walking to my house from the school bus stop, I never knew if that would be a day I’d hear my father’s drunken rants bombarding my mother. The times I heard them I wouldn’t look to the right or to the left lest I’d see a neighbor’s face. My eyes focused straight ahead on the backdoor. There I could escape inside the house and disassociate myself from public shame.

When we had moved into our new house, the neighborhood did not know my father was an alcoholic. If the family kept the secret, no one would ever know. Of course, Daddy let it out.

One afternoon Snowball was not on the stoop. She was not there the next afternoon or the next. She was never there again.

As her absence continued, I expressed my puzzlement to Mama. “Sometimes dogs go away,” she said. But her glib answer did not sit right with me.

My heart believed Snowball loved me too much to just up and leave. And I didn’t fear she had been hit by a car. She was not a puppy.

Snowball surfaced four decades later from my father’s lips. “You remember that dog Snowball? She always ran after the mailman. He said he would not deliver the mail to our house anymore if she didn’t stop. We called the SPCA. We had to.”

Twenty years after my father revealed Snowball had been euthanized, I had a dream that I was in a serene place. Alone. That is, I didn’t see anyone, but I did feel I was not alone.

I was squatting as I do when greeting a grandchild face to face. Suddenly, a white dog appeared, running to me as fast as a speeding bullet. “Who is this?” my mind asked. An unseen voice replied, “This is Snowball.”

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Why Hurt People Hurt People

My mother was still in shock that Saturday morning when she shared with me, “Not all alcoholics are mean.” She had heard it firsthand from a speaker at the AA meeting my parents now regularly attended on Friday nights. This news was unbelievable to me also.

Repeatedly drilled with my father’s example, I, too, had thought alcoholism and abuse always went hand in hand. The only alcoholic I knew up close and personal, my father was undeniably a mean one. Why, when he drank, wasn’t he a “nice” one like the recovering alcoholic my mother had heard telling his story?

Part of the answer, at least, can be pieced together with story scraps of my grandfather’s life. His father died when my grandfather was young. Treated cruelly by his stepfather, my grandfather struck out on his own when he was fifteen. My mother once commented of my father’s father, “He was a mean man.”

Could it be that my father, tangled in the web of spinning ancestral pain, battled the hurt by threading it into his family, the ones nearest and dearest to him? In an article dealing with why hurt people hurt people, Joseph Mattera explains:

  1. Hurt people often transfer their inner anger onto their family and close friends.
  • Often those around them become the recipients of harsh tones and fits of rage because they have unknowingly become the vicarious recipients of transferred rage.
  1. Hurt people interpret every word spoken to them through the prism of their pain.
  • Because of their pain, ordinary words are often misinterpreted to mean something negative towards them.
  • Because of this, they are extremely sensitive and act out of pain instead of reality.
  1. Hurt people interpret every action through the prism of their pain.
  • Their emotional pain causes them to suspect wrong motives or evil intent behind other people’s actions towards them.
  1. Hurt people often portray themselves as victims and carry a “victim spirit”.
  • Often hurt people can cry “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” or often use the words “unjust” or “unfair” to describe the way they are being treated, even if there is no truth to this. (That is not to say that sometimes there really is racism or sexism in some instances; this is just used as an example.)

Hurt people have a hard time entering into a trusting relationship.
Hurt people often carry around a suspicious spirit.

  1. Hurt people often alienate others and wonder why no one is there for them.
  • They often continually hurt the ones they love and need the most with their self-destructive behavior.
  1. Hurt people have the emotional maturity of the age they received their (un-dealt with) hurt.
  • For example, if a girl was raped by a man when she was 12 years old, unless she forgives that man and allows Christ to heal her heart and allay her fears, in that particular area of her life (sexuality with a man) her emotional growth will stop; even when she reaches her later years she may still have the emotional maturity of a 12 year-old.
  1. Hurt people are often frustrated and depressed because past pain continually spills over into their present consciousness.
  • In many instances, they may not even be aware of why they are continually frustrated or depressed because they have coped with pain by compartmentalizing it or layering it over with other things over time.
  1. Hurt people often erupt with inappropriate emotion because particular words, actions, or circumstances “touch” and “trigger” past woundedness.
  • I have been in situations with people in which there was a gross overreaction to a word I spoke or an action that was taken. Although I was shocked and thought this reaction came “out of left field” it was really the person responding to an accumulation of years of hurt and pain that could not help but spill over in various situations.
  • I myself have been in situations where I felt hurt, troubled, or overreacted to something because it touched a nerve with what I was still dealing with because of a wound I received in the past. In these situations I have attempted to reason through the situation as objectively as I can with much prayer and introspection so I would not say or do anything damaging to another person or myself.
  1. Hurt people often occupy themselves with busyness, work, performance, and/or accomplishments as a way of compensating for low self-esteem.
  • Often ministers are not motivated by a love for Jesus but a drive to accomplish.
  • It is important that pastors and ministers be led by the Spirit instead of being driven to succeed.
  • A minister should not preoccupy himself with making things happen. He or she should walk in integrity and humility and allow God to open up doors and provide a ministerial platform according to their assignment for their life and ministry.
  1. Hurt people often attempt to medicate themselves with excessive entertainment, drugs, alcohol, pornography, sexual relationships, or hobbies as a way to forget their pain and run from reality.
  • Until the church learns to deal with and emphasize the emotional life and health of the believer, the church will be filled with half-Christians who pray and read the Bible but find no victory because they do not face the woundedness in their souls.
  1. Hurt people have learned to accommodate their private “false self” or “dark side” which causes them to be duplicitous and lack integrity.
  • Often their private life is different from their public life, which causes hypocrisy and compounds feelings of guilt, condemnation, and depression.
  1. Hurt people are often self-absorbed with their own pain and are unaware that they are hurting other people.
  • They are often insensitive to other people because their emotional pain limits their capacity for empathy and their capacity for self-awareness.
  • I have been in numerous situations when someone hurt me and kept on going in the relationship without ever apologizing because they had no clue what they were doing.
  1. Hurt people are susceptible to demonic deception.
  • I am convinced that most of the divisions in the church are caused by saints who lack emotional health and project their pain onto others.
  • Satan works in darkness and deception, and stays away from the light. Hurt people often have destructive habit-patterns that are practiced in the dark. Hence, their mind becomes a breeding ground for satanic infiltration and deception.
  • If the church would deal more with the emotional health of the individual, there would be less of a foothold for demonic infiltration. Also, there would be stronger relationships, stronger marriages, healthier children, and a more balanced approach to ministry with less of a chance of pastoral and congregational burnout.
  1. God often purposely surfaces pain so hurt people can face reality.
  • Whether it is because of a marriage problem, or continual personal conflicts on the job, God often allows conflict and spillover because he wants the infection to stop spreading and the person to be healed.
  • Often Christians are fighting the devil and blaming him for conflict when in essence God often allows conflict so that people would be motivated to dig deeper into their lives to deal with root causes of destructive thought and habit patterns.
  • God’s purpose for us is that we would all be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). This does not just happen with Bible studies, prayer, and times of glory but also in painful situations when we have to face what has been hurting us for many years.
  • I have noticed that these periods of surfacing woundedness often take place when people transition into the mid-life years of their upper thirties and later. Perhaps this is because by then they are old enough to understand by experience that there is something wrong and also that it is not too late to redeem their pain and restore relationships and maximize their purpose. Rarely is a person able or even willing to deal with and face pain when they hit their senior years (in their sixties or older). Most at this age have already become cynical, hard-hearted, and/or become so depressed they have become hopeless even though God is able to help them at any age.
  1. Hurt people need to forgive to be released and restored to freedom.
  • The Gospel of St. John 20:23 says that we have to release the sins of others if we are going to be released. This means that if we do not forgive others then the very thing we have become victimized with will become a part of our life. For example, alcoholic fathers breed alcoholic sons if their sons do not forgive and release their fathers.
  • The good news is that, through the efficacious blood of Christ, we can all be healed and set free from all past hurts so we can comfort others with the same comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:4).

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Truly Thankful

I didn’t trust her question. Although just six or seven years old at the time, I was well trained in deciphering double meanings.

This grown-up never paid any attention to me. So why did she make a beeline from her backyard to me in mine and ask, “What did you have for Thanksgiving?”

The way she couched the words meant she was a little too anxious for my answer. What did she want to do with it? I detected she had a hidden agenda and would somehow use whatever I said against my family.

Early on children raised in an alcoholic home develop a hypersensitivity to verbal and nonverbal cues. No comment or question is ever inconsequential, innocent, or taken at face value. Always lurking is the suspicion of a driving ulterior motive. Therefore, the victimized child is constantly dissecting for the truth.

My young brain reasoned the neighbor couldn’t possibly know what had been going on in our house. She couldn’t see behind closed doors. Since it was too cold for the windows to be up, she couldn’t have heard Mama’s screams when Daddy hit her. And this pesky lady would have been sleeping when my father exploded into rage tantrums throughout the night.

I didn’t think the nosy neighbor would have seen the petrifying policemen, either. Her lookalike four-room house faced a different cul-de-sac. Chances were she was not outside when they came to our front door.

My total mistrust of this woman’s question was eclipsed, however, by my parents’ persistent teaching never to lie. So I answered the meddling neighbor truthfully and told her, “Potato soup.”

My father’s drinking binge had been in the endgame, where there was no money for whiskey, wine, beer, milk, or a Thanksgiving turkey. But I didn’t miss the latter as I dipped my spoon in the hot broth and sent it away from me like a ship going out to sea. When I brought the spoon back to me, I ate the captured potato pieces and celery bits.

As the family sat together around the kitchen table sipping our potato soup, I basked in the sobered silence. Daddy was not talking mean, Mama was not crying, and I was not scared.

That Thanksgiving Day I understood forever after what it means to be truly thankful.

For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen.
(a grace prayer recited in British and Australian religious schools)

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Unexpected Development

He was a mean alcoholic. My father. I learned early on to keep my mouth shut. Not to say anything unless he spoke to me first. A cocoon of silence was the safest shelter from his tornadic ranting and raving. And not just when he was drunk.

My father did not explore my thoughts–shallow or deep–on anything. I obeyed his creed:  Children should be seen and not heard. His demands were to be met and in a hurry–no questions allowed. When I had a school problem, I took it to my mother. Always off-limits was any talk about the family shame.

This careful childhood engineering shaped my fear of the male authority figure. Thus I limped through life’s unavoidable encounters with male authorities, but Fear of Male Authority Figure immobilized me when I sat scared in the office of the college president. I was there because someone had assured me I could get a small scholarship if I simply asked for it.

Sitting where the secretary placed me—on the far side of the room from the college president—I was ashamed and afraid. Ashamed I was in a situation of having to ask. Afraid the answer would be no.

My replies were honest although they may have sounded timid. As usual, I lacked courage to look a male authority in the eye. No doubt the president behind his massive executive desk concluded I was hiding something. …

… And I would exit the interview still shackled to Fear of Male Authority Figure. (Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father, p. 22)

But the days of this debilitating fear, birthed and nurtured in an alcoholic family, were numbered. Ironically and unbeknownst to him, my father was the impetus for its destruction. The demise began when I am convinced my father, warehoused in a nursing center fifteen hundred miles away, is a victim of drug-induced dementia.

Any hope of rectifying this injustice meant I had to confront doctors–the most frightening to me of all male authority figures. Up there next to God in the chain of command, a doctor controlled life and death.

After spending days screwing up courage to make the contact, my heart pounded throughout the first phone visit with Daddy’s primary physician.

‘Those are all good drugs that have been around for a long time,’ Dr. King said with patronizing finality.

My chart! My chart! Where is it? How am I going to know what to say if I can’t find it? I shouldered the telephone receiver and rubbed my clammy hands on my jeans. It’s my turn to talk. I mustn’t keep him waiting. Hurry, hurry, hurry!

My chest felt like a popcorn popper as I tossed papers out of the file. There it is! I grabbed the page of hand-drawn columns. I didn’t take time to return to my chair. ‘Uh, well, Dr. King, uh, I was reading the, uh, side effects.’ (Before the Door Closes, p. 23)

Nine months and several doctors later, I confidently approached a physician on behalf of my father, who again had been given a drug for a disease he did not have.  My father had moved to a nursing facility a few miles from my house, and this doctor is its medical director. Looking him in the eye, I am not intimidated.

‘It has been almost three weeks since Rosie called your office to switch my father to your care. We have not heard anything, and I want to know if you have made your decision.’

‘Is your father better?’

‘Yes, he’s better.’ It was the truth. Daddy no longer had dyskinesia. He was feeding himself again. Although he did not always recall the right answers, he comprehended the questions.

Dr. Murphy gave no hint of what he was thinking.

Is that it? I asked myself incredulously. You’re not going to commit one way or the other? Well, I will.

‘Dr. Murphy, my father is going to have a different doctor. If it’s not you, it will be somebody else.’ (Before the Door Closes, p. 117)

I was not intimidated, because when I was sixty-four years old, something unexpected happened to me. My Heavenly Father, looking at his daughter chained to Fear of Male Authority Figure, decided it was time for her to be unshackled. So God roped me in the ring with doctors, where I kicked and pushed and punched until Fear of Male Authority Figure could not stand up ever again.

God the Father never finishes growing His children. As Paul said, “I feel sure that the one who has begun his good work in you will go on developing it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6 Phillips)

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PBPGIFWMY

As a freshman member of Alcoholics Anonymous, my father memorized its renowned twelve steps. My memory of his success is  recounted on page 62 of Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father:

“More than fifty years earlier, Daddy had memorized its twelve-step program. ‘Listen to this, Judy,’ he said, taking a card from his wallet. Striding around the room, he repeatedly read aloud the dozen principles. Day after day he thundered them until they were rooted in his mind. That accomplished, there were times, it seemed, when he needed a reminder. Roping the family in it, he would unexpectedly walk to the middle of the living room, square his shoulders, and deliver each step perfectly.

“He sounded every bit like a fervent evangelist when his assured voice thundered, ‘Step Two. Come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.'”

Thinking back on that now, I believe those were times when Daddy was asking his family for patience.  At his core he desperately wanted to quit drinking–never succumb to another slip. Making us listen to his recitation was his way of reminding himself and us.

The plea of Daddy’s heart was epitomized in a maxim in the late seventies/early eighties, abbreviated PBPGIFWMY:  Please be patient; God isn’t finished with me yet. Also during that time Joel Hemphill wrote the gospel song “He’s Still Working on Me.”

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The Opt-Out

“The patience of Job” is a misnomer, for patience implies exercising calmness while under hardship. That wasn’t Job! He was a complainer who endured. When he decided he had finally “had it,” Job demanded his day in court with  God. Once the Almighty heard his arguments, he would  undoubtedly be vindicated (Job 23:1-5)!

When the Judge comes, he opens the case by essentially telling Job he doesn’t know what he’s talking about (Job 38:2). Again and again God makes Job face the evidence of His sovereignty and grandeur. When the examination ends, Job, left speechless (Job 40:1-5), becomes God’s all-weather friend.

That’s how I described the friend  in my post of March 10. She had assured me that no matter what she would learn about me in my book Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father, she would love me. Nothing I had done or been in the past would change that. Job reached that point in his relationship with God when, like her, he opted out of being a fair-weather friend.

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The All-Weather Friend

“I was ‘startled,’ Judy, to receive your book,” my friend emailed me. “You know, we just don’t know people, do we?”

She was one of three out-of-state friends I surprised with a copy of Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father. They had had no inkling of my father’s alcoholism. The friendships were formed and maintained for decades without the trust of my shameful secret. I wouldn’t chance losing a friend who knew the whole truth about me.

Growing up, I wanted to have a best friend. But how could I start? I couldn’t invite anyone to my house. Daddy might be drunk.

The closest I got to having my desire for a bosom buddy was with my college roommate. Whenever we listed our preference for the next semester, I was afraid she would choose someone else. She liked me well enough, though, to stick with me for four years. But if she had known I was the daughter of an alcoholic, would that have changed her mind?

Her relationship with her father was totally different. He drove her back to college after the summer breaks. On one of those trips, she told me, he held her hand all the way from Florida to Tennessee. Strange! My father had never as much as put his arm around my shoulder.

In my forties I developed another close friendship. Her family had ties to my teenage neighborhood. Maybe she knew about my father’s history of alcoholism. I don’t know. We never talked of it, but we had a good time sharing stories about our children over lunch every few months. Then one day her name came up in a conversation with two other people. One of them said, “She is Judy’s friend that I took.” I wasn’t shocked. I had noticed the change in her and was glad I did not need to excuse it anymore.

But the friend who was emailing me about my book gift refused to read it until she laid down her ground rule: “Before I begin I want to say I love you as a sister in Christ and as a person.”

“A friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17).

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