Letting Go of the Illusions

K.G.'s father died when she was 12 and she's remembered him as a loving dad and husband. But he abused her mom, which K.G. is slowly admitting to herself.

by K.G.

Names have been changed.

My father died when I was 12, after years of fighting cancer. Toward the end, when he was very sick, I wanted to give him all my love. It was easier to do that by shutting out things he’d done to my mom in earlier years.

Admitting the truth even to myself took years.

My father wasn’t abusive when I was little. He was diagnosed with cancer when I was in 2nd grade and my little sister was a baby. Both of my parents told me I shouldn’t worry, so I didn’t. My dad looked and acted like nothing was wrong. He didn’t seem to be dying.

The change I saw was not him getting thinner or weaker. In a way, it was worse. About two months after his diagnosis, my father started to come home drunk and abuse my mom.

I was shocked to see this side of my dad, who I thought of as perfect. Watching him change into the meanest person I had ever seen was terrifying and unreal.

My parents spoke of each other with love, and there was truth to that. But it was also true that my father sometimes hit my mother so hard that she woke up with bruises and dried blood on her.

It always happened at night. My dad would come home late after work and confront my mom, yelling at her to admit she was cheating on him. His eyes were watery and red and he stank of alcohol.

They always fought in the living room, and often threw and broke things. Sometimes it was so loud it woke up my little sister and me.

My First 911 Call

In one of their early fights, my dad launched my toy microwave into the wall. It exploded into pieces. I was watching from the doorway and started crying.

Then he shoved my mom to the ground, slapped her across the face, and punched her, while I watched, horrified. I didn’t hide, hoping the fact his daughter was watching would stop him.

“Kiara, call the cops.” My mother tossed her phone at me and pushed my dad toward the door, trying to get him out of the house.

I grabbed the phone and my sister, ran into the bathroom, and locked the door. My hands shook as I dialed 911, which I had learned how to do in school from emergency officers.

The woman who answered asked what the emergency was. In a shaky voice, I told her my parents were fighting in the living room and gave her the address.

She asked if any weapons were involved. I was thankful that I could say no.

My sister had her hands over her ears, whimpering. I hugged her and allowed her to cry into my shirt that was already wet from my own tears.

A few minutes later, I heard sirens followed by knocking on the door. Unfamiliar voices drowned out the yelling of my mom and dad. It was safe to come out. My sister followed close behind me and peered into the living room.

My dad stared at the floor with regret on his face as he got handcuffed. That crushed me, and I collapsed onto my knees and began bawling all over again.

A female cop took my sister and me into a bedroom farther from the living room. She rubbed our backs soothingly as she asked our names, ages, and schools.

I wanted my mom with me. I could hear her answering questions in the living room, and then she said: “No, I don’t want to press charges.”

The house felt quiet and empty after all the commotion. My mom acted like nothing had happened. She said it was late, that we had school tomorrow, and that we should go to bed.

The fights happened several times a month, and my dad went off in handcuffs more often than not.

Hiding It From Everyone

My mom told me repeatedly, wagging her strict finger, “Don’t tell anyone. Not your friends, not your teachers. No one.”

She said that if I told anyone, both she and my dad would go to jail. It was already hard enough that my dad spent a week or so in jail every few months.

I talked to him a few times over the phone while he was locked up, and although I was furious at him, I was also sad to hear about the bad jail food and his cold cell.

I was terrified to lose my parents and also of their anger if I shared our personal family business with outsiders. So I kept quiet.

My 5-year-old sister was just learning to be her own person, but she modeled herself on me. If I screamed, she screamed. If I cried, she cried. If I laughed, she laughed.

So it became my responsibility not only to protect her physically, but also to act like it wasn’t horrible that our father was beating up our mother. From the beginning, I was hiding and faking for others, including my family.

Most confusing of all was that my dad could switch from violent to gentle so quickly.

My sister and I slept in the same bed in the room next to my parents’ bedroom. Early one morning, while it was still dark, I heard my dad harshly speaking to my mom and then a slap. I ran over and pushed the door open and saw my dad hitting my mom through the blanket. I yelled at him to stop and he immediately did.

He got out of bed and grabbed my hand, instantly transforming. He gently helped me put on my coat and shoes.

“Daddy, where are we going?”

“You want some ice cream?” he asked me with a smile, and answered his own question. “Yeah, we’re going to get ice cream.”

My mom was out of bed, angry that my dad was trying to get me out of the house. They argued again and I stood by, with no clue what to do. My mom tried to grab me, but my dad hustled me out the door and into the car.

It was a school day but my dad got me ice cream and allowed me to chill in his office for the whole day. He bought me meals and drinks, and kept me happy.

This memory remains clear in my head, much more clear than the abuse. I return to that day to think of my dad as a good person and a good father.

I asked my dad why he hurt my mom.

“Dong [his nickname for me], I can’t remember. I’m sorry,” he said. I was only 9, but I didn’t buy his answer. How could he forget the monstrous abuse? But I could hear the sorrow in his voice. His apologies seemed genuine and I’d forgive him—until he did it again.

Finding the Love Again

As my dad got sicker, my parents fought less. When he started losing his hair and spending more time in the hospital, all the violence stopped.

My mom and dad grew close and loving again. After two years of abuse, there were about two years of peace before he died, when I was 12.

My mother started to drink too much while he was sick, but I didn’t realize she was an alcoholic until after his death.

It felt wrong to tell anyone about the abuse after my dad died, like speaking ill of the dead. I wish my little sister and I could remember only the amazing man and the fun, loving father.

My dad was never afraid to put himself at risk. Whether climbing a tree to get our kites or sticking his arms in a car’s running engine, he seemed like a hero.

He wanted to make us happy. He took us to an amusement park and the beach when it was warm. He told us funny stories about a pet crow he used to have and crazy stories about a motorcycle accident, showing us the scar on his arm. He lit fireworks on the Fourth of July. He made us laugh. He told my sister and me that we could grow up to be doctors.

My dad was fearless, compassionate, playful, and creative when he wasn’t taken over by alcohol. To some extent, I believed he was the best father in the world. Hiding the abuse from the rest of the world made it feel less real.

Telling a Little

But while it was happening, it was hard to hold myself together during school. I would spend my lunch period helping my teachers with paperwork.

One day the tears were too much to hold in. My 5th grade teacher noticed and told me about a woman she talked to who made her feel better. I thought she meant a friend, but it turned out to be a guidance counselor in the school.

I told the counselor that my parents were always fighting. She reassured me that it is normal and that her parents argued frequently too. (I did not tell her the fighting was physical and often ended with my mom bruised and my dad in handcuffs.)

The conversation was mostly her talking while I played with a foam ball. Still, talking to someone helped. I felt like I wasn’t carrying the weight alone anymore.

People know my father died, and some people know my mother is an alcoholic. But few people know my dad was physically abusive to my mother for two years.

Acknowledging this makes me feel like garbage. I’ve pushed those memories away so I can just love him and look up to him.

Remembering the best parts of him makes it easier for me to love him and to mourn.

Telling other people the truth would shatter the image of my early family life as happy. I can pretend to myself, but not if other people know.

I want some aspect of my childhood to feel normal. I want to relate to other people whose parents’ fights never go beyond one of them sleeping on the couch, or giving each other the silent treatment.

What Good’s the Truth?

People thinking of me as a “victim” of domestic abuse would make me feel more damaged than I already feel having a father who died and a mother who’s an alcoholic. That’s another fear about telling the truth.

Acknowledging that my dad abused his own wife, the mother of his kids, takes a good parent away from me.

Instead, he becomes the man who got drunk and hurt my mom, the man who I couldn’t stop, the man who died and left my mom alone and damaged.

I feel proud of myself for not hiding from the truth anymore, but I wish someone would tell me that it’s normal to feel so confused.

Why do I still love my dad at the same time I’m angry at him? Why am I angrier at my mom than my dad, when she’s the one who was abused? Why do I wish it was all still hidden?

I can’t predict the reactions of my friends if I tell them the truth, and I don’t know if it would make me feel any better.

The truth can help me grow, however. Knowing my dad had secrets helps me look at other people with a more open mind and with more compassion. Who else has a dark side that they don’t present? Everyone is dealing with their own issues in their home, and in their own heads.

I know more than others how it feels to be afraid and powerless. These are emotions I’ve tried so hard to ignore, but acknowledging them makes me realize I don’t ever want to make anyone else feel the same way.

I hope to be someone that others can rely on and always feel safe with.

Accepting the truth about my dad inspires me to be a better person than him. I still miss him and love him with all my heart, but his abusive side knocks him off his pedestal. I don’t have a role model to replace him.

Instead, I’m pulling together my own image of what a successful life looks like. As a 17-year-old, I don’t know exactly what that will be for me, but I am proving that I can be reliable, dedicated, calm, and understanding. I’m learning to navigate my troubles honestly. All of that will help my path appear.

I feel proud of myself for not hiding from the truth anymore, but I wish someone would tell me that it's normal to feel so confused.
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