"If only I could turn back the hands of time, I would erase all the pain I caused you."
This was the letter my father gave to me the day before my wedding. A single piece of paper was attached to a box, and inside was a beautiful, white gold watch.
My father was mentally ill. We don't talk about such things; they always happen to others and it's someone else's relative. But he was my father. He was a prisoner of his own mind, trapped in the craziness of manic depression otherwise known as bipolar disease. He was a man devastated by his lows and hyper during his highs. Worst of all, he knew it -- before, during and after each episode.
When my parents met, he showed some red flags but in her innocence, my mother thought he was fun loving and eccentric. He was good looking, charming and had a great sense of humor. My mother says to this day that they truly loved each other. As time went on, his symptoms grew worse and when I was born, the pressures of family life became too great. He went from doctor to doctor, physiatrist to physiatrist and they each prescribed him different cocktails to curb his moods. So began his lifelong chemical dependencies.
I learned early on that there were good days and bad days. I learned not to bring friends home; slumber parties were for other girls. I learned what it meant to have no control; my father would say he loved me one minute but embarrass me in public the next. I was so angry at him; how could he fall into the same patterns over and over? Didn't he love me enough to learn to wake up and go to work like everyone else?
It is hard to fully describe the impact that the instability and shame had on me.
Eventually after my mother tried everything, my parent's marriage dissolved.
I was terrified to start dating. After all, I was from a close knit community and one day I realized, everyone knew. It took many years to work out my own issues, to learn to control the anger, to limit my expectations and to accept reality. Looking back, I wonder how I managed.
I met my future husband. He was everything I needed, calm and patient and very understanding. My father loved him because he made me happy. He saw our relationship as a new start for him, a chance to begin anew and a reason for change. That was when he wrote me the letter and gave me the watch. "If only I could turn back the hands of time, I would erase all the pain I caused you."
For the first time, I began treating him like a person and not a burden.
I still recall exactly where I was standing in our new apartment when my father broke down. He was stable from before my engagement until a few weeks after the wedding. I was almost hopeful. My husband took it in stride and supported me through that very difficult time. With his listening ear, kind words and advice, I learned for the first time to separate my father from his demons. I viewed him in a new light, as someone in pain of the most terrible kind, the pain of insanity. I began to show him respect and speak to him with dignity. For the first time, I began thinking of and treating him like a person and not a burden.
I was wearing that watch when I got the phone call. Its face read 6:14 and I somehow knew this was the early morning phone call I always dreaded. For years I suspected that my father would die young from the toll of his issues and medications. I woke my husband in a panic. He answered the phone, listened for a moment and tears began rolling down his cheeks. He nodded his head to me and I understood at that moment that this chapter of my life was over. My father had died in his sleep. My father and all those years of pain and shame were gone.
His death was bittersweet. I knew that now he was at peace, but I had just begun to come to terms with who he was. As my younger sister told me at the funeral, "I have tears in two eyes, one for sadness that he's gone and one for happiness that his suffering is over." I just wish I had more time.
When I was 18, I began therapy to help me manage the devastation my father's illness had caused me. I remember my very wise psychologist saying, "One day when you're in your 30s or 40s, you'll thank your father for forcing you to become such a strong and good person." She was wrong; I'm still in my 20s.
The same way I learned that there are good days and bad days; I learned not to take any of these days for granted. I fully appreciate the gift of sanity, the privilege of being in total control of my mind. I can wake up and wash my hands once. I can eat a full bowl of cereal and enjoy it. I can begin my day happily playing with my children. I can love, I can learn and I can give. Through it all, I have become a better wife and mother.
If only I could turn back the hands of time, I would show you, Daddy, how much I learned from the pain you didn't want to cause me.