A stone from my father

Samuel Betances

One of the most important challenges I have faced is forgiving a father who failed to love and support me. Forgiving him has been particularly difficult because he never voiced regret or repentance for how he treated me and my siblings. I looked to him for bread, proverbially speaking, and he gave me a stone.

In my quest to forgive, I first had to become mindful of his single greatest contribution. It was not warm hugs or discipline. It was not wealth or wise counsel. He was not there to take me to games, watch me win debating contests or celebrate as I graduated several times over. He skipped my wedding. I never received a birthday or Christmas present from him. He was literally absent. He made one priceless contribution however, he and my mother gave me life!

My second challenge was to understand the trauma that robbed him of his capacity to be a real father. As I confronted my memories, I had to resist thinking: “What’s wrong with you?” and ask instead: “What happened to you?”

It started with his dad. My grandfather, Fernando Betances, was a strong, tough man. He was a cop with a reputation as an enforcer. He was also a ladies man. In uniform, he captured the admiration of his peers, his community and another woman.

Young Julio was 11 years old when his dad fired his gun in the air. The whole neighborhood flocked to see what the commotion was all about. He wanted to leave my grandma, so he publicly accused her of being unfaithful. My father knew it was a lie. He wished that his father would drop dead. Tragically, while on duty a year later, Officer Fernando was murdered. His young son’s wish had become a dreadful reality. Soon after, my grandmother died of tuberculosis, shame and a broken heart. My father asked his dad for a fish and got a snake instead.

Orphaned and alone, my dad spent his youth in garages in the company of rough, macho men. He became a heavy drinker, depending on alcohol to deal with his rage, guilt, loss and despair. Notwithstanding, he became a first-class mechanic and a skilled truck driver.

One day, while driving to a plantation in the mountains to pick up a load of fruits, vegetables and coal, he met the daughter of the plantation manager. They soon became romantic. My mother, too, wanted to escape her reality. They eloped. On the eve of World War II, they moved to New York City. He did what he knew how to do. He found work as a mechanic and joined a new fraternity of drinking buddies.

He was black and my mother white. In Harlem, in that age of segregation, that added stress to an already shaky relationship. Their attraction never fully blossomed into something solid and meaningful. They had children. But, with no parental skills and no role models, they could not give us what they both lacked.

I had to fend for myself. Nonetheless, I refused to curse the night. With the help of caring teachers, I lit a candle instead. One of my early supervisors challenged me to read. While my father had found comfort in booze, I found mine in books. Memoirs and biographies were most helpful. I learned from people who had suffered trauma worse than mine, survived and even triumphed.

It is true that, when I asked for bread, I got a stone. Now I also know that, when my father asked for fish, he got a snake. We both got cheated. He was an emotional cripple, broken at the knees, with few tools for dealing with his trauma.

It has not been easy, but I have learned of late to forgive my father and see myself as a positive part of his legacy. I cannot condone or justify his absence. But I can understand it. So here goes: “I forgive you Papi. Rest in peace.”

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