The Only Marriage Advice I Will Ever Give
By Julie Tijerina
When I was 13 years old, my father nearly punched me in the face.
He and my uncle were playing cards with my mother and aunt upstairs in the game room. A green vinyl-topped card table had been erected to accommodate the game at the end of the pool table that filled the whole rest of the room. Everyone was around the table, the adults, me and my kid sister because that room was the only one in the house with air conditioning. I don’t really remember, but I’m sure it was a Fourth of July weekend, because that’s when my extended family would come down from Kansas to drink and blow up fireworks in the heat of the Texas summer. We lived out in the country, so we weren’t breaking any laws to light fireworks and it became an annual stay-cation to invite the family and make a long weekend of the holiday.
The window unit circulated the cigarette smoke around the room. It was smokier than any bar I’d ever visit as an adult. I lifted myself up to leave. My drunken father pushed me back in my chair, laughing Jack and Coke in my face. Again, I made a move to get up. Again, pushed back in my seat. The third time, I expected the hand at my chest, so as he went to push me back into my chair, I swung hard at his forearm, knocking his arm back toward him and darted out the door, slamming it behind me. I knew he was right behind me, so I ran as quickly as I could down the stairs, but he caught me as I was clearing the last piece of furniture in the living room, the sofa.
My dad’s left hand had me by the front of the shirt, his right raised with a closed fist. He had me backed over the arm of the sofa and I couldn’t have been any more trapped. I turned my head as far to the right as I could, squeezing my eyes shut against what I knew was coming. My face would have been shattered if my mother hadn’t been hot on his heels down the stairs and was hanging onto his raised bicep with all of her body weight.
I was suddenly released. With a glare from my mother to each of us, she ordered him back upstairs and said to me with a finger pointing, “go to your room.” Jesus Christ, you don’t have to tell me twice.
I didn’t forgive him for twenty five years.
Just before midnight on August 2, 2011, I found myself drunk on several glasses of wine in my best friends’ living room, having just finished a movie when a commercial came on that started a fight. I’d relay the whole story, but it would make me sound like I was somehow justifying my behavior, which is totally impossible, so I’ll just paint you a picture instead: imagine a little blonde, drunk bitch, with her chest puffed out, screaming (yes, literally screaming) obscenities and insults at the people she eats dinner with 2 nights a week, traveled all over North America with and shared hotel rooms with, was at the time dreaming of moving to Florida with. In THEIR living room. I was so livid, my mouth was moving faster than my brain and I stormed out, taking the car, leaving my shell-shocked husband there to the deal with the group confusion.
My friends brought him home, where another fight ensued and I began to pack my clothes. My husband of 18 years helpfully handed me a box.
At one in the morning, I drove myself to my parents’ place, an hour away. (Yes, still drunk.) I slept in my car until five in the morning when I heard my dad coughing on his back patio. I guess that’s what old ex-smokers do. They cough out of habit more than anything.
So, I knocked on the front door. Since it was pre-dawn, I was greeted at the door by a flood light and a shotgun. (No, I’m not kidding. This is Texas, after all.) In hindsight, maybe I should have texted my parents to let them know I was there before I knocked on the door.
I stayed the day. By the time I really sobered up and rested, I was so mortified by my behavior, I didn’t want to go home. I was invited home by my husband. We had a long talk, as you can imagine. And, when we were done, he arranged for me to make a 30-minute mea culpa to our friends. My memories of the day that my dad drunkenly attacked me came flooding back. I had been in their place. I knew exactly how they felt. I knew that I had dehumanized them, humiliated them, confused them, betrayed them, even. I also knew I didn’t deserve forgiveness because up to that point, I had been unable to forgive. I knew I had destroyed something precious, something that was sweet and fun and brought us all joy.
The next day, I was so wracked with guilt and sadness that I did the long, big, ugly cry. My poor husband was trying to be as supportive as he could without actually absolving me. He knew too that I didn’t deserve redemption. I had injured him as well, because our friendship now hung in the balance, and his life would be forever changed without these beloved friends. But, like he always had, he stayed the course, working as an intermediary. Trying to get us all to eat meals together and return to our normal activity level again. Since he and my girlfriend carpooled to work, I’m sure that many a conversation was had about what to do with me. (He never shared them with me, for the record.)
I swore off booze for a time and kept my shoes on whenever I was in their home. I was determined not to make myself too comfortable in that space again, so I continually reminded myself I was a guest. After five years of friendship, that thought tore at my heart. It was ultimately my husband’s clearheaded words that struck a chord in the soul of my friend and healed her wound on my behalf. (All the contrition in the world can’t make someone else forgive you. It is their choice and their choice alone.)
At that point, my dad had actually been sober for 20 years – 20 YEARS! and had worked so hard to put his family back together. After 25 years reliving his alcoholism and trapping myself in my own head with emotional worthlessness, I was finally able to release that outdated version of him. I never understood the angry outbursts before. I always felt victimized before. Now I desperately wanted and needed that exact same forgiveness that I had been unwilling or unable to grant. Where it took me 25 years to forgive my father, it took her a mere year to forgive me and I’m grateful every day.
The “after-school special” part of this story, obviously is that we are all free. After a year of (understandable) emotional distance, my girlfriend invited me to a pedicure, and I knew I had been forgiven. But, because she chose to let go, she no longer has to relive the pain I inflicted. We don’t discuss it, or try to explain it. I released my father too and I no longer have to relive the pain he inflicted. When those memories find their way into my mind, they are easily dismissed as the vapor they are.
Our friendship and my family is (through changed behavior) whole. My husband and I bought a house behind our friends and we’ve all managed to get back to normal. We have since traveled together, shared hotel rooms together again and eaten many, many meals together. I still watch my alcohol intake when we are together in either of our homes. But, on the rare occasion I’ve had too much at a party, my “second husband” is willing to pretend to dance with me while he’s really supporting me on the dance floor.
You know when you go to a wedding, the little cards at your place setting that ask you for your marriage advice? The only thing I write is, “forgive.”
Julie Tijerina is on a quest to learn about herself, the world and to observe other people with curiosity rather than judgment. Her home is in Dallas, but her soul is always at the ocean; her current job is in a cubicle, but her life’s work is writing. She’s a SciFi geek, a yogi, a former therapy patient, a lover of dark haired men and honest women. She was catapulted out of depression by Learned Optimism and may have just learned the secret of happiness by identifying her Core Desired Feelings. She believes all the hard stuff takes at least a year, so ease up on yourself, love.