Two years ago, I got my first tattoo: a ring of fire with the lyric Love is a burning thing. I got it to honor the relationship I had with my father; a symbol of the love he had for me. When I was little, he would put on the Johnny Cash record, and I would dance in circles in the living room singing The reen of fiyerr, the reen of fiyerr.
I have a hard time remembering the good things about my father, and I thought this was a good way of solidifying our bond. Time and again my aunts, cousins and grandparents would tell me how much he loved me, and I earnestly, desperately want to believe it, but I just don’t remember.
And it hurts like hell.
A couple weeks ago, I sent for a copy of my father’s military service record (and as it turns out, he very likely got booted out early for inappropriate conduct). In order to obtain it, I had to send a copy of his death certificate. It was almost surreal to see all the minute details—the approximate time he pulled the trigger, the exact time he was pronounced dead, the .44 magnum he used that was later destroyed. But it wasn’t the details in black and white that affected me most. It was the memories those details triggered, flooding my consciousness with the fear and trauma I experienced as a child.
It was everyone gathered in the downstairs apartment that night.
It was my excitement to sit on my aunt’s lap, my lack of understanding.
It was my mom forbidding me from entering their old bedroom, the room in which his life was ended.
It was being dismissed from class to attend the funeral over the loudspeaker in my elementary school.
It was the moment it finally hit me, the moment I crawled under the dining room table and looked up to the picture of my father, aunts, uncles and grandparents, tears streaming down my face, silently pleading for an answer, a reason—
Daddy, why did you leave me?
I can’t say that I knew exactly what had happened—my grandmother told me that it was an accident, that he was cleaning his gun and it went off—but for all the obvious that I miss when it comes to social interaction and relationships, I have always been deeply intuitive when it comes to pain, and I think I knew on some level that the lie was meant to protect me.
In a way, I think it was also to protect my mother and the rest of my family—now that I’m older, I can’t even imagine how gut-wrenching it must have been for them to even tell me that he had passed, let alone the fact that it was self-inflicted.
It takes an unimaginable amount of strength, a kind of strength you don’t even know you possess until you’re forced into that situation.
The kind of strength that my mother has exhibited every day of my life.
It took me a really long time to realize that my mother and I are survivors of domestic violence. For as much as I learned about gender-based violence in college, I never connected the dots. Maybe it was self-preservation, or maybe I just couldn’t handle the fact that someone who genuinely loved my mother and me could inflict so much pain and emotional damage; a kind of cognitive dissonance that has plagued me my entire life, and that I am just now, at 25, ready to think and write about.
This post was originally meant to be about my struggle to understand the relationship I have with my father, particularly because I permanently memorialized it on my body. What I didn’t understand at the time I got the tattoo, however, is that my relationship with my father is intrinsically tied to my relationship with my mother, as well as my father’s side of the family. My father was the fourth of six children, so my aunts and uncles have a very different understanding of him—they knew him before the alcoholism, before the abuse, before the neglect. They aren’t able to see the side of him that my mother and I saw, the reality that she and I lived every day—the drinking, the meanness, how he would spend all our money on booze, how he would try to pick me up drunk from my nanny’s house—I couldn’t have been more than four, but I distinctly remember my nanny taking me to the parking lot of the grocery store near her house so that he couldn’t drive drunk with me in the truck. I remember the hole he punched in the wall, and the masterpiece of red construction paper with blue, yellow, pink, white and purple pencil squiggles that haphazardly covered it.
There’s also plenty I don’t remember.
I don’t remember the time I called for “Mommy Stanko” at work, in tears because of a severe ear infection, when my father refused to take me to the emergency room.
I don’t remember the time my mother tried picking me up from my father, nor his refusal to answer the door despite my frightened cries for my mommy.
I don’t remember him kicking us out of our apartment; I don’t remember our brief stay at a domestic violence shelter where the Annie doll my grandmother sewed for me was stolen; I don’t remember his threats on my mother’s life; I don’t remember the terror he inflicted upon my mother, and the fear she must have felt for herself and for me.
For a while, it was easy for me to demonize him because I didn't understand what depression was really like.
I didn't understand how addiction, coupled with crippling depression, could distort someone's personality and turn them into someone they really weren't.
I didn't fully understand my mother's angry outbursts over seemingly innocuous incidents, because I didn't understand the weight of the responsibility that goes along with raising a small, traumatized human when you are wrestling your own demons.
Really, I may never fully understand.
Nothing about love and violence makes sense.
What I do know is that I have more compassion for my father and my mother, and the struggles that they faced.
I have a better understanding of the complexities of love, and how you can still love people that hurt you and cause you pain.
I know that love isn't the be-all, end-all, and that it really isn't all you need.
You need compatibility, shared dreams and goals, a respect for one another's individuality.
You need a best friend.
I've learned much and more from my parents, the good and the bad.
I've learned to be pragmatic in my views on love and partnership.
I've learned that love truly is a burning thing, and that if you're not careful, it can consume you.
Most importantly, I've learned to have a deep respect for that fire, knowing full well that it will burn me if I'm not careful, but that it will also keep me warm, that it will give me a will to fight and a passion for being alive.