Limited by Trauma
She felt guilty. Her father had just died, but instead of feeling sad, she felt happy. Was she a horrible, heartless daughter? Not knowing what to think, she asked to talk to a chaplain.
In bits and pieces, her story came out. For the last year and a half, she’d been her father’s caregiver. He’d never been easy to be around. A combat veteran, he had run his home with military discipline. Orderly, rigid, and autocratic, he showed his children a limited kind of love. Mostly he ignored them, but he could be abusive. When drunk, he was cruel to their mother. It was the typical story of a man traumatized by violence who only felt safe when he controlled everything around him.
But he couldn’t control his guilt and his memories. He couldn’t control himself. His addiction didn’t help.
With time, he drank himself into despair, destitution, illness, and, finally, death. He’d gone through three wives before his last left him. His children didn’t want anything to do with him. But seeing how her father suffered, his youngest relented. Maybe she’d endured less abuse at his hand than her siblings, or maybe he’d shown her flashes of the love her mother had known before he’d gone to war. Whatever the reason, this young woman felt enough tenderness toward this pathetic man that she decided to go live with him and help him die.
Understanding the History of Pain
She knew her father’s love was limited. She understood that he hadn’t known love as a child, nor had his own father. The cycle was passed down through the generations. All he’d known, and all his daughter knew, was a love that had to be earned, but no success, no goodness, was good enough. Her father was starved, and so was she.
She knew his pain. Being an alcoholic herself, she understood the misery that drove a person to destroy themselves rather than have to feel. When she finally got sober, though, and explored the depths of her heart and spirit, she came to see that love was possible. She found peace and inner courage.
That allowed her to move in with her father and take care of him, even though she knew he wouldn’t thank her for it. To thank her would make him vulnerable. But she figured she wouldn’t need thanks. Instead, she saw this as an opportunity. By taking care of her father, she figured she could repair some of the scars in her heart. She might even learn to forgive him. If she couldn’t change their relationship, she could at least change herself.
Her father had a lot of limits on how much he could love. She wanted to do better, and she figured that taking care of him would be one way to do that.
Limits to Love
So she went to live with him. It had been ugly, grueling, dirty work. Some days, she felt lonely and hopeless. But she had her friends and her sponsor. She persevered.
As time went on, there were some touching moments, though not a lot. She realized she’d been hoping that if she loved her father hard enough, with all the purity she could muster, he would heal. He would stop drinking and become the father she’d longed for. Yet no matter how much she tried to accept and forgive, she couldn’t make him better. Her love was not powerful enough to do that.
But she’d been a member of AA long enough to know that powerlessness was a fact of life and that power wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. So she remained faithful and hopeful, and she kept going.
In the end, her father died in his addiction. His brain was too addled, his mind too feeble, his heart too broken to believe he could find his way out of the hell in which he’d lived. So he didn’t try. In that hell, he died.
The Happiness in the Letting Go
Then, after he died, his daughter felt happy. How, she wanted to know, could she feel happy that her father was dead? Didn’t that make her a terrible person?
As her story came out, and as I asked questions, and as she considered, she came to see that she wasn’t so awful, after all.
Partly she was happy because her father was no longer suffering. He’d found a kind of freedom. Hopefully, he’d found peace. But she knew that wasn’t all of it. To pretend it was would be a lie.
No, she was also glad she didn’t have to tend to his body, anymore, deal with his testiness, or clean up his messes. She liked having time to herself. Besides, a tortured and torturous man was gone from the world. He couldn’t hurt his family anymore. For that, she was grateful.
But there was something more. Now that her father had died and there was no healing left for him on this earth, she could no longer be expected to love him enough to make him well. All her life, she knew she had failed him, and it had made her miserable. Now that he was dead, she felt free. She was no longer responsible for making him better. And with that realization came the recognition that making him better hadn’t been her responsibility in the first place. It had been his. Just because he’d refused to it take on didn’t mean she had to do it for him.
That awareness alone was worth celebrating.
Do We Really Change?
This woman’s story was about the limits of love. It was also about the limits of change. Even when the consequences of his addiction wracked his body and isolated him from all the people in his life except for his one, determined daughter, this father couldn’t face the truth of who he really was. He couldn’t take that first step toward change. To see his true self would have broken what little was left of his heart. Apparently, he didn’t have enough faith in love to take that chance.
Or maybe he didn’t think change was possible. At least not for him. Some people don’t.
In the Armand Gamache mystery, A Trick of the Light, Louise Penny asks if people can really change. If someone is cruel and vindictive, can any amount of inner searching enable them to become compassionate and caring? Maybe they can behave a little differently here and there, but won’t their essential nature remain the same?
When We Get In the Way
The plot of the book focuses on Lillian, an alcoholic who, in her work as an art critic, destroyed the careers of artists, and thus their souls. Devious, unnecessarily brutal, she blindsided many with her witty, but devastating reviews. Then she started going to AA and got sober. Though her sobriety tempered her bitterness, even softened her heart, she was still impatient, driven, and eager for success. She wanted to complete the steps more quickly than she should have, trying to make amends before she was ready. At least one apology was ill-considered and perfunctory. It ended up getting her killed.
Most of us don’t die from our insensitivity, but we do hurt others. Had she lived long enough, and had she worked the AA program seriously enough, she might have learned to be honest, tender, and sensitive to others. Maybe she would even have learned to love.
Changing for the Worse
Good novels are written about those moments when events in our lives force us to either change or die. Penny’s novel is no exception, and most of the characters change in one way or another. But they don’t all change for the better. Lillian’s murderer, for instance, grew more bitter and angry as time went on. Inspector Beauvoir, traumatized by a disastrous police raid in an earlier book in this series, spiraled into bitterness, fear, and despair.
In one scene, Gamache was talking with Myrna, a retired psychologist become bookseller. He asked her if people really change. They explored the idea a while, wondering if what we think of as change is less a fundamental reordering of a person’s personality, and more just the evolution of a life lived.
Then Myrna used the example of Humpty Dumpty who shattered when he fell. Before most of us are willing to change, we must experience that kind of shattering. We must try to fit the pieces together again. Like Humpty, we must discover that that’s impossible.
But maybe that’s not so bad. After all, if he were put back together the way he’d been before, “he’d just fall again,” Myrna told Gamache.  When we shatter, maybe the pieces should be fitted together in a new way. When life shoves us from the wall, we are never quite the same, and that’s okay.
Yet even then, we have a choice. We can put the pieces back together in a more humble, honest, true, and compassionate way. Or we can get lost in addiction, anger, bitterness, and shame. The thing is, Myrna told Gamache, people do change, but that change is “not always for the better.” 
Changing for the Better
But sometimes it is.
One of the characters in Penny’s book was a young man who, in his addiction, had driven drunk and killed a girl. After serving time in prison, he did his best to make amends for what he’d done. Though he couldn’t bring the child back, he made a difference in the life of her family. By getting sober, by being honest with himself, and by learning to love himself, he began to heal. Finally, he transformed from the bitter, angry, and violent man he’d been into a thoughtful, kind, and generous one.
Not until something significant happens to us will we make significant change. Hopefully it won’t be something as awful as the death of another human being, but whatever it is, we must decide how to respond. Some of us will grow. Some of us, however, will choose to die rather than change.
That’s what the patient’s father did. He died. Can we learn from him and do something different ourselves?
The patient who shared her story did something different. She got sober, did some counseling, worked the steps, and changed her life. As she talked about her feelings after her father died, she faced the truth of what she thought and of who she was. Her father’s death didn’t free her; her honesty did.
The fortunate among us had fathers who knew how to love. Being human, their love would have had limits, but they would have been consistent enough and compassionate enough that those times of lack, insensitivity, or distraction wouldn’t have defined us.
If, however, we didn’t know a love like that when we were growing up, then hopefully we can find father-figures who will love us. Gamache was that kind of father-figure for Beauvoir. In A Trick of the Light, we see the limits of Gamache’s love in the secrets he keeps, and we see the brokenness in Beauvoir that makes him imagine an abandonment that doesn’t exist. Yet if we’ve read earlier Penny books, we have learned to trust that these two will reconcile. They will remember love, and that love will heal them.
Even the love of a man like Gamache has limits. He is an imperfect father, an imperfect mentor. Though healing is always possible, there are limits to the love of every man.
The Love of a Higher Power
That’s one reason twelve-step programs encourage us to find a higher power. Isn’t part of the definition of a god, that there be no limits to its love?
The steps don’t use the word “love.” In the second step, we are encouraged to “believe in a power greater than ourselves that could restore us to sanity.” The third step suggests we make “a decision to turn our life and our will over to the care of” that greater power. Yet if our greater power is not limitless in its love, why surrender our entire being to it? What, other than a complete and unconditional love, would be worthy of such trust? Only a love without limits, one that never abandons us, that never lets us go, can fully heal us. The only thing that love like that is a god.
When I was growing up, no one in my family talked much about God, nor did I hear about God at the Unitarian Sunday school I attended. So I didn’t think about God, either. Without knowing it, however, I had a god. My god was the trees and the brook. Sitting in the branches of the pines, watching the water trickle over the rocks, I felt safe, held, loved, healed. Nature never let me down. She was my higher power. She helped me survive.
Love that Keeps Us Sane
A father’s love matters. When it is gentle, kind, deep, and abiding, his love will keep us warm throughout our lives, even though we face injustice, trauma, and tragedy. But too many of us are wounded and frightened by the limited love of our all-too-human dads, the ones who disappeared, who abused, who couldn’t cope with life and thus were distant.
Regardless of how limited our father’s love was, we can love a little bit better. Like the patient who changed her life, like the character Brian who became a new person through AA, like any of us who have the courage to look at the truth within us, we can increase our capacity to love. Yes, unlike a god, our love will have limits, but every day we can learn to do a little better, and then a little better still.
Love is all around us. It is in the universe, in the trees, in other people, in the food that nourishes us. We can choose change rather than death. We can choose to heal. When we embrace the love of the universe, of our higher power, of our god, that love will teach us to love ourselves. Then we will be able to love others.
Not everyone will accept our love, and our love won’t heal them all. But we will touch some, and we will make a difference to them, and they, too, will learn to love better. In this way, love will spread around the world.
In faith and fondness,
- Penny, Louise, A Trick of the Light, New York: Minotaur Books, 2011, 245.
- Ibid 246.
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