Memoir

How to Mourn a Sexually Abusive Father

I'd wanted him dead for years, but that didn't stop me from grieving.

How to Mourn a Sexually Abusive Father

My father was everything wrong with my life since my life began. There was a stiff relief when I got the news of his passing, a year in the making thanks to cancer and probably a thousand-­pound conscience.

Yet there I was that afternoon at his wake, in tears, fainting before him in his coffin.

Maybe it was the pressure of being in too many emotional states at once that did it; standing on the knife’s edge of a daughter’s morality while feeling an imp­like glee at his death. My sister from his previous marriage had been kneeling at the casket, and I’d tried to support her and play the calmer of the two of us. She was crying and shouting at him, mired in her own grief, for she had suffered much of the same abuse from him in her own childhood. I looked at our father’s still face and the tiny smile of a mortician’s design on his lips. I got scared. There’s always been a part of me that worries that no matter where I am, no matter if he’s alive or dead, he’ll get me. I felt a great weight on my chest and became lightheaded, and before I knew it I was falling backward and onto the floor. I was only out for a few seconds. I saw my sister rush to my side, as did my husband, and my mom’s best friend. They propped me up against a chair, they fanned me and gave me water. My mother was a hand, extending over my shoulder from behind me, shoving creased napkins into my hand, out of view.

This had been a day I’d longed for and dreaded for a long time. On the flight out of London, where I live, to New York City, where I grew up, I wondered what this grief would be like, hoped there’d be some sort of finality in it. For even after ten years of therapy, even with him in his casket in front of me, I feared there’d always be a part of me where he’d be very much alive. Most of all I feared there would be a fierce tidal wave of time and emotions, like the day that marked the beginning of my recovery.

Twelve years ago, on February 22, 2004, I was standing in my dorm room with a chair high over my head, intent on hurling it into my mirror. I was having a rage fit, the third in as many days, and I didn’t understand why. I was just furious, and wanted to raze everything. And if I happened to harm myself in the process, good. Everything had to go. I was no stranger to self-harm – if anything, this rage and willingness to destroy what was around me was the new thing. That night was different. Standing there with the chair over my head, I heard my father’s voice. Barely a whisper but then it was solid and certain. He was physically over a thousand miles away. But mentally, and within me, he was very real. And he wanted me to come into the bedroom with him.

It was an experience as frightening in its suddenness as it was in its power. I’d known I’d been sexually abused as a child but the memories had always been shreds of moments in my mind, or physical reactions to seemingly harmless situations that didn’t make any sense. Aware of my dorm room again after an indeterminate period of time, the chair eventually came loose from my grip, and I sat on the floor. I felt as if I were going into another dimension, re-experiencing some of the awful things my father and his friends did to me when I was a child. After it passed, I slept, and in the days that followed I tried to go about the spring semester of my senior year in stressed peace with my classmates, planning the future, looking forward to growing up and out into the world. Only I seemed to be bleeding nothing but darkness. I heard voices, felt hands grabbing at me. I’d laugh hysterically at a joke one moment and the next feel ice cold and would flinch, expecting that I was going to get hit in the face for smiling.

It would only get worse, and within a year’s time I would fully understand the truth: My father had put me in a sex ring from the time I was a toddler until I was nine, and from nine to the time I left home he verbally and psychologically abused me.

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A life full of travel and reinvention, in part due to this history, was not enough to prepare me for the wake. Sure, the world was light of one more monster. Only there was no “how” to grieving him and no jig to dance – he was still my father. He was still my enemy.

My husband pulled me up by my right hand, my sister by my left, and they settled me down onto the chair. I looked at my mother, who gently said, “Try to calm down.”

Whenever I’ve told someone I’m a sexual abuse survivor, they almost immediately ask where my mother was while it happened. I’m an only child to old­school Puerto Rican parents who had me late in life and did nothing but work. Simply put, my mother couldn’t be everywhere at once. Pedophiles are the best sneaks in the world, for they are thieves. What they steal being so serious, they take their chances where they can get them.

When he wasn’t outright taking me out of my bed at night, there were times he’d do something quick and insidious even while my mother was in the apartment and unaware. I was around seven when I walked in on my father in the bathroom, and before I knew it he’d shut the door down to a crack behind me. He wanted me to watch him do something. Then he wanted me to help him. I was too afraid and overwhelmed by him to make a sound. I could see my mother, walking by the crack in the door, saying something to my grandmother, then saying something on the phone, frantic and frustrated as ever in those days. My mom was nowhere and right there at once. Just as she was at the wake. She cared for me and often put me first. But some days, most nights, I slipped into cracks where she’d never find me.

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Afterward, my father went to the living room and sat in his favorite chair. He watched me over his shoulder, cold and unmoving as I went to the bedroom and sat at the edge of the bed by the doorway. He wasn’t a big man, yet in that chair he was a huge black presence, a square face with pewter gray hair, a voice that could be heard from anywhere in the apartment. He was in an old plaid shirt over a work shirt straining across a beer-swelled belly, old jean shorts and slippers. Yet it was like he was dressed in armor. There was nothing I could do to escape him, even when he was just looking at me. My mother, exhausted from dealing with the demands of her life and I imagined probably me as well, asked me what I was doing sitting on the bed. My father’s eyes seemed like they overtook my entire field of vision. I could not only see him but sense him in the distance, reinforcing the silence that harbored him. “Nothing,” was my only answer.

In 2005, a wonderful therapist named Terri helped me gain the courage to tell my mother what had happened. My mother would eventually come to tell me she’d never forgive herself. What I hope she one day understands is that the vines of control are long, dense and invisible when it comes to people like my father. For many years he’d had us right where he wanted us.

That’s not to say I never felt a resentment toward her for not protecting me. It was like the stubborn smell of smoke long after a fire. Even if she wasn’t a witness or an enabler, I often asked myself how she couldn’t have known something was wrong. On an afternoon when she’d gone to the store, my father had asked me to finish helping my mother clear a pile of clean laundry from the bed. I didn’t want to and rolled my eyes at him. He lunged at me and swung me by the front of my shirt and threw me against the wall, pinning me there with one hand while the other became a fist pressing against my cheek. He went on about respect and doing as one’s told. I was nine.

The metal-on-metal jangle of my mother’s keys in the door saved me. Like an evil spirit he was gone within moments and back in his chair, flicking through sitcoms on TV. I sat on the bed again, shaking. I remember her looking at me, then back at him, as he numbly giggled along with the laugh track of a time gone by.

At the wake, we were all still and exhausted in the sparseness of the viewing room. There were six of us in a space with enough seating for 75. Bushwick was hot and busy outside, and occasionally the door opened and closed behind the lone visitors that leaked through the afternoon. Some were my father’s colleagues from many jobs ago, some were neighbors or friends of friends we’d never met. Some took his photo on behalf of another who could not be there. They all gave their quiet condolences, mourning a man who, to us, was not necessarily the same man in the casket.

One of his friends from the care home he lived in until his death came in. His kindly eyes were framed by liver spots, and years wrinkled his skin. Two thin oxygen lines attached to his nose led down to a narrow tank he pulled behind him with the help of someone I assumed was his wife. He leaned heavily on his cane and greeted us all with warmth. I’d never seen him before but he regarded me with deep familiarity. He knew who I was.

“I’ve seen your picture many times. Your father was such a nice man,” he said. “We’d talk for hours. He knew the Bible so good. And he always made me laugh. You must be in so much pain and I am so sorry.”

I couldn’t handle the thanking and the nodding and the small­talk Spanglish conversations anymore. After he left I lied down across a series of chairs next to my sister. Her eyes were fixed ahead on our father in the coffin, sad and pensive.

“There was love there,” she said. “That’s what I’ll never understand.”

It’s what no one understands. How could a parent do such things to their child? I’ve since consigned his behavior to mental illness and his own sexual abuse as a child cross-wiring into the thing he became. But still, it’s an oversimplification that doesn’t account for everything. Not every abused child becomes an abuser, not every mentally ill person has a history of sexual abuse or would dare hurt a child.

A friend offered me the advice of trying to think of the happy memories of my father. An old, random one came up. It was the day he’d made me a kite out of notebook paper and we went to the backyard to try to fly it. He seemed so eager to entertain me. It was that tendency in him that would trouble me for a long time. He was so hateful, cruel and dark to be around. But then he’d have these moments of levity and kindness.

“Have you ever flown a kite?” He already had the paper in hand when he’d asked me.

I remember a moment’s hesitation when he asked me to come outside with him. His eyes were bright and happy. He was being honest. And so I followed him. He told me stories of all the strange toys and would-be kites he’d made with his friends growing up in the country. He kept saying, “We made nice things with what we had,” after I’d asked him why we couldn’t just go to the store and buy a kite. There was more joy to making it with our own hands, that was his thing, and he pulled the thread through the bottom and the sides while I taped the front and back flaps where he’d told me to. It’d never work, I knew that. Maybe he did too.

When moments like that came, maybe he was trying to emulate those dads he’d seen on television, on all those American sitcoms he loved to watch, even though he didn’t always get the jokes. They did stuff for their kids, like tuck them in, or make them dinner. Or make them kites. On that windy day the kite flew, crooked and stiff, before it tore off the sewing thread he’d attached to a pencil and got caught in a fence nearby.

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We found this funny. We went back inside and built another one. That one broke too, and we didn’t try again. He was annoyed for the rest of the day and I didn’t understand why. My passing glimpse of Father was again gone.

Sorrow welled up in me. I rose from the chairs and went outside for a cigarette, knowing now that I was encountering the side of me I dreaded most after my father. It was the other side of my inner child, the one who only knew him as “daddy.” If survivorhood were a hurricane, rage would precede the eye, and that little girl would follow it. It felt cruel to humanize the person who was least human in my life. But she needed him. She didn’t deny what he’d done yet for some reason, somehow, she loved him all the same. It’s a dichotomy that’s difficult to bear let alone describe. Even on the day I confronted him a year before his death, hatred and love were very present and alive in me at the same time.

The “how” of mourning an abuser reveals itself in the last thing one expects: to admit there was love. If there’s such a thing as closure on such a day, or in the tumult of days and weeks and months after, maybe, it comes from that. From holding tight to the love of what could have been and of the glimpses that were revealed. At the future for yourself that you have to claim as your own.