A Father’s Day Series

I honestly couldn’t think of a title here… I’m starting a series of 3 posts on father’s day and what better way to start than with some catharsis. It’s long, sorry, It was a quick write.

An Introduction

We are a few weeks away from father’s day here in the US and I want to share some thoughts on being a father that I’ve learned from my own father and his family. Before I do that… I want to take you on a high altitude cruise over my childhood. I think it’s important to try and highlight that these lessons are even more special, since I didn’t have access to them for 15 years of my life, basically… So that’s what this first of three posts is about. The next two are about my dad and his family and the lessons I’ve learned and still need to work on applying. Before I go farther.. I want to say to you that I’m not trying to lay blame in this post. I’m not trying to create strife in either side of my family, I’m not looking for or making excuses for anything in my life and I’m certainly not looking for sympathy or validation. I’m not talking in depth about siblings or other family members here, I haven’t consulted them and I’m sharing my thoughts of the past 26 years (still can’t believe it’s been that long since I’ve been 7)

Some Background

From the age of about 7 until the age of about 22, my dad wasn’t in my life. Well he wasn’t… But his name always was. An intense anger towards him was for a lot of that time. A fear of him was there. Sure I’d see him sometimes at court hearings, I’d talk about him to countless therapists for most of my life and he seemed to be a good excuse for all that was wrong in our house growing up.

You see, I grew up as an abused child. I was a victim – well no, my mom heard someone use the word survivor once and thought that more empowering – so I was a survivor of child abuse. My father – my one armed, skinny father – had abused me. In elaborate ways – like the “electric suitcase” I described once on the witness stand… A device that would get plugged into a wall outlet (110 volts) and somehow send electricity through two handcuffs – one affixed to each wrist – and yet leave no permanent heart injury, bruise or burn somehow. There were a few attempts at sexual abuse that went nowhere. There were beatings, threats with knives, clown costumes and repeated exposures to scary behavior….

Well… That’s what I said anyway. That’s what I said in therapy sessions, apparently. It’s what I said to judges, lawyers, juries and guardians ad litem. But you know what? None of it happened. Yes.. I remember he and my mom fought a lot. I remember he lost his temper a couple times and would run at my mom and then stop, to scare her… To be a jerk, I guess. But even those situations I can look at with a slightly different lens now. Not a condoning one, but one that understands there are two sides to every story and while that behavior is not acceptable – people can screw up in tough situations…. But me? No.. I’ll talk about all the good memories I have in the next post, in fact.

I am not going to get into how I think this happened or what may have caused it all to boil up. I have my theory and the important people involved understand that theory. Right around the time our  case was getting going, a witch hunt was on in the MA court system. Child abuse was a big deal, prosecutions were up and there were likely other bad cases going through the system, some more famously documented and debated. That didn’t help things. I remember the excitement with which therapists would ask leading questions, “Show me how your dad would hit you?!” and the interest in the answers. I remember the attention from mom. I remember having a badge to wear.

So on prosecutions went until the prosecutors had to drop the charges because they knew they wouldn’t get anywhere. My father refused to take a plea bargain with an admission of guilt – even with no jail time. He refused to back down on his integrity and say he did something he didn’t. I’ve since heard stories from his close knit family of how they tried to convince him (along with his lawyer) to just do it and move on and say, “forget it”… He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. I now know that is because he was and is innocent. I can’t even begin to put myself in his shoes… Hearing those allegations from a child you loved so much. Knowing what the implications were on that relationship. I can tell you I have no clue what I would do in that situation. Tears well up just thinking of the potential… Eventually they offered him a deal that would have no admission of guilt and he’d just have to watch his step and also not force visitation rights for a period of time…

Well he quickly gave up on that end of it. He couldn’t not see his children. So he started fighting to see us shortly after the trials quieted. I can imagine the hope he must have felt… “They’re older. they probable remember now that it was all mistakes and nothing happened. I’m their dad and I love them.. They’re gonna want to see me.. They can’t keep me from them forever, I didn’t do anything… We’ll get through this and look back and laugh about it..”

Well that isn’t what happened. Instead the visitation proceedings started. By this time I was maybe 11 or 12.. I was tortured. Conflicted. On one hand I remember staying up in bed at night – not being a Christian or having an understanding of grace – literally thinking, “Oh man… We lied.. I lied… Dad is potentially going to jail (I didn’t understand the deal he agreed to) and it is my fault.. I don’t understand this but I screwed up his life.. I swore on a Bible at court.. I’m doomed to Hell – whatever that is…” So on one hand I really felt like something was wrong with our story… But somehow on the other hand I had this hatred for my dad. I had this hatred for a system that was trying to make me visit him. Again, I can’t go into how I could be tortured here without causing more hurt than worth but I understand now… I think I welled that fear of what I’d done to him, that hurt, that despair – I welled all of that into the anger and frustration I had. I let the fear and worry take over and more or less bottled up the thought that he was innocent way down inside.

And I FOUGHT. Looking back I’m proud of my fighting skills while utterly embarrassed and broken up about who I was fighting. About what I was fighting. I let myself believe that I was an abuse victim. I let myself believe this evil system was going to decide for me if I should visit my “abuser” (how we often referred to him….) So I did what any normal 12 year old would do… I wrote a letter. I wish I still had a copy but it quoted the declaration of independence, it quoted the star spangled banner and it was full of passion. It was an angry letter but it must have been convincing. I ended up photocopying the heck out of it with the help of teachers and I mailed it to everyone.. Radio, TV, State legislators, federal legislators, courts, etc. Stories were written in papers, NPR interviewed me, statehouse reps called me and a TV station interviewed mom and me… the victims… A bill was introduced (and it was poorly written and never passed – thankfully looking in the rear view mirror of my own situation) that basically said anytime there was even an allegation of abuse – a child could decide in their own mind what was in their best interests, instead of the court. I was incensed that here I was, a “mature” 12 or 13 who thought he understood the world having decisions made in the “best interests of the child” by a court system that didn’t appear to care what he or his mother said…. Well when I fought….

He retreated…  It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t because he did anything to me. It was because he saw me fighting. He saw my venom. He has even since told me he secretly liked my letter when a copy made its way to him. He was even proud that TV news crews were trying to hunt him down at his place of work.

His retreat, though, wasn’t because he was mad or that he started getting threats and funny looks – like he was a child abuser who hurt his own kid (he did get those comments and those looks) … No… It was because he loved us… Because he saw the fighting. He saw the hurt and he remembered the first court fights.. He knew that it wouldn’t end well for us. So… this father, whose only wish all these years was just to see and hold his kids gave up… Not in desperation.. I think it was in courage. he selflessly gave up on what he wanted to make it easier on us. Because he loved us.

For the next 8-9 years he got himself by with the hope that someday he’d get to at least know us. That someday he’d get to chat with us and tell us he loves us and maybe, just maybe, hear it back.

I can’t tell you what that would do to me. I can’t tell you what that would do to most people. Knowing my dad now, and not wanting to spill too many secrets, I’ll tell you one thing about him. It’s awfully tough for him to get really close to folks. I don’t blame him… For crying out loud, his own kids were ripped from him – and they were still alive and living just 30 miles away. I don’t know what that does to a man’s heart and I hope I never have to find out.

For those next 8-9 years my life wasn’t great either.. I was living a lie. I was becoming a fighter for children’s rights from ages 12 to 16 or 17. I was starting self help groups half heartedly for abused kids, with this whisper in the back of my head that it was all lies. I received a “for courage to tell” award at a public and swanky ceremony. Publicity increased, while I still had this subconscious unease about it all. I felt like a fraud, had convinced myself that I just repressed memories and was confused and kept going. It was probably easier to keep going then to come to terms with what the truth might possibly reveal about the past. Those sleepless nights went away, replaced by anger, behaviors that I wish I could take back, excuses, etc. As an adult I can vividly remember that feeling of lying in bed at night staring at a dark ceiling worried about what was going on – worried about the lies from the age of 8 to 11 or so, with no one safe to talk to about it… I remember being so confused, and internalizing all those feelings. I imagine him having even more nights like that than I did. So alone. Even in the midst of an awesome and loving family… So terrified and feeling like he was stuck in some weird dream or a Kafka novel – waiting for everyone to yell SURPRISE! and laugh about the joke…

The story doesn’t end there.. I’m so thankful it doesn’t. My girlfriend at the time (my wife now, btw) had to put up with a lot of annoying whine fests. She had to listen to me recount things and start to come to the realization that it was quite possible that nothing happened to me. I stole some strength from her and wrote a letter.. Forget what it said but it was a hi.. An I want you back in my life letter. I think I ended it with a deal… Paraphrased, “I have no clue what happened… If you did – I forgive you… If you didn’t, I hope you can forgive me.”

That letter, that borrowed strength, was the start of a new relationship. A lot of new relationships. My aunts, my uncles, my cousins, their kids, my father. My children’s “papa”, and my own papa. I’ve heard that he was a source of strength for my dad and he was just as broken about it as my dad was. I’m so glad he got to see that reunion and get to know me a bit again before he passed on.

So here I am… In my 30s… A father myself who has a long road to go to be a better father. I’ll save the next two posts for how this situation and my own father taught me a few lessons about being a dad.

17 thoughts on “A Father’s Day Series

  1. Justin Dearing

    The motto of Langley, John 8:32 has always been something of a secular and spiritual guiding principle for myself. It seems quite appropriate to your situation.

    Reply
    1. Mike Walsh Post author

      That’s a good motto and it is quite true. The truth has most definitely set me free with regards to that part of my childhood. THE Truth has set me free as an adult when I gave up fighting against God. While I’d rather have seen my dad have us and us have him, the situation has also helped shape me into who I am today (the good and the bad 😉 ) and it is only after letting go of that bitterness and coming to the realization that I was living a lie 10 or so years ago that I was able to see the lessons.

      Reply
  2. Trish

    Mike … it took me three times as long to get through this as it probably should have, as I have to keep stopping to wipe away the tears. As your dad’s sister, I only saw “our” side of things, and what it did to my brother, and us. And even though we have talked a little about what it was like for you, there is something so different about reading your heartfelt thoughts. It makes me realize how hard it was for you – and how young you were.

    I know where the “story” goes … and it is a testament to the grace and love that only our God can give.

    I love you so much Michael, and I look forward to reading what you are willing to share in your next post.

    Reply
    1. Mike Walsh Post author

      Amen Trisha… Aunt Trisha 😉 I know how old that makes you feel to hear…

      But you are right. It did end alright. I wish that dad and the rest of the clan believed but I do think that in some ways the brokenness that was in the past helped me look at life differently and helped set me on the path that eventually brought me to Christ. I also think that some of my good qualities (and some of my not so great ones) are a result of all that stuff. But we’ve been able to move on and dad has his kids each back in his life to varying degrees and he’s loved by his grandkids up here. Only thing left on my heart is for Him to have that relationship repaired with his Heavenly Father. That’s the one that matters ultimately in life.

      Reply
      1. Trish

        Ditto all you just said … and don’t let it slip by that both you and I came to accept Christ around the same time 10 years ago. In our family, to have one believer would have been amazing! I say the same prayers for all of them, but know that in the end it is their decision. But God knows what is in their heart, even if they don’t.

        Reply
  3. Peter Schott

    Mike,
    That’s one big post of openness about your life. I can’t imagine the childhood / young adulthood you had, even reading this. I appreciate you posting this and also appreciate the fact that your life was changed so you can write something like this. I hope that it can bring healing to others who may have gone through something like this in the past.

    Reply
    1. Mike Walsh Post author

      Thanks, Peter –

      After I published it this last night/this morning – I asked “what the heck did I do that for?!” 🙂

      I think I did it for 3 reasons.. 1.) It really does paint the picture for the “urgency” of many of the fatherhood lessons I wrote in the second post I’ll publish later this week at some point… But also 2.) My dad knows this stuff already, most of the family knows this in many aspects but when “my” story hit the local big TV station, when it was in the Globe and on the radio, etc, it was a story of an abused boy.. Abused – allegedly they’d writem but we all know how that is read when folks read the paper – at the hands.. Well actually hand 😉 … of his father.. So that was the public story. It’s been about 2 decades and those stories have faded from memory but I just wanted to be public in this correction. I’ve been eaten up by this for 10 years now and I’ve wanted it out there in some way. Now it is… And 3.) My story isn’t unique. Allegations are made a lot in all sorts of situations.. Families are needlessly broken and folks are on the hook for stuff they didn’t do because of breaks in the system, because of other reasons.. Maybe someone will be encouraged by it.

      Reply
    1. Mike Walsh Post author

      Thanks Brother,

      I blame the spiritual growth of hanging out with guys like Jack, Brian and you in our “Band of Four” Bible study and accountability calls as a part of that.

      Reply
  4. Elise

    Wow! Amazing!! Mike, I’ve known your Aunt Trish since I moved to VA and I’m blessed she’s entrusted me with so many parts of her story, which included you! Of course Trish is also an amazing and articulate writer and communicator so many parts she made quite clear, however, reading your perspective and being able to feel your heart through the words is awe inspiring and tremendously moving! God is SO good and uses ALL things for His glory! Thank goodness!!! Right? Because, it sure would be a complete bummer to have trash in our past and continue to stay in the dumps! Thank you for sharing yet again another God story of redemption, grace, courage, transformation and undeniably God! Simply amazing! And I LOVE! Your writin style! Fantastic!!

    Reply
    1. Mike Walsh Post author

      Thank you, Elise. Yeah she’s a pretty neat woman. Definitely blessed to have her as an aunt. Glad she’s a sister in Christ also. Thanks for the words and I’m glad the feeling came through. God is definitely good and he definitely takes our broken pieces and uses them for His glory. Even if we don’t let him, look at Pharaoh. We serve a God who specializes in taking those of us with the trash heaps you describe and turns us into trophies of His grace. I think the tougher the case we are – the more it speaks to the fact that all the good in us comes from Him. 🙂

      Reply
  5. Pingback: Lessons From my Father | Open Mike

  6. Chris Leonard

    Wow.

    Truth is beauty and power, and Christ is truth. Thanks for letting him show through your story. I look forward to hearing more and seeing how that Beauty and Power is still (I trust) shaping both you and your dad.

    Reply
  7. Eileen Zaino

    Michael, you may not remember me, but I remember you flying around your grandfather’s living room under the power of your Dad and the big smiles both of you had. Your Dad, yourself, and your siblings were all victims of the pervasive mass hysteria back then. He always loved you and, you’re right, he stepped away because he loved you so much he couldn’t stand causing you any pain whatsoever. I am so happy that you are a loving family again Happy Father’s Day to both of you:)

    Reply
  8. Pingback: Lessons From My Dad’s Family | Open Mike

  9. Uncle Bob

    Mikey, great sharing and cleansing for you here. I remember one great summer day in Billerica in your pool with you, Adam, your Dad and me. We had a ball all afternoon. It is my best memory of you as a kid. It was shortly after that the poop hit the fan. It was devastating to watch. As time went on and things spiraled out of control, I always remember your Dad saying “I will not put my kids on the witness stand, even if it helps me.” To me at the time that was the stupidest thing I have ever heard. Now that I am a dad, I truly understand what he meant, he has unconditional love for all three of you. As they say time heals all wounds, and you have done a great job of healing this wound.

    Uncle Bob (John?)

    Reply
    1. Mike Walsh Post author

      Hey Uncle John… I mean Bobby. 😉

      I love that comment in the middle of yours… “To me at the time that was the stupidest thing I have ever heard. Now that I am a dad, I truly understand what he meant” 🙂 That’s one of the lessons he taught me. They are more important than just about anything in your life. He realized that. I really felt like the only abuse we suffered as kids was not having you guys and him in our lives while we were still growing and learning.

      Reply

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