The pastor of the megachurch started.
“Imagine having a father who loves you so unconditionally that no matter how many times you mess up, you can’t be separated from his love. How would you live if that you had the love of a father like that?” he said.
His hands gestured emphatically, the air punctuated with fervor. I’d been mesmerized by that choreography. It was far more interesting than the boring scenario he’d proposed. My dad loved like that. But the family therapist at the first rehab I’d attended had seen things a little differently.
“This is very codependent behavior,” the family therapist said.
“Yes, he is,” I had said. Through DUI’s, totaled cars, stolen twenty-dollar bill by twenty dollar bill – I couldn’t get my father to give up on me.
“Not him,” the therapist said,
Interested and curious, I’d shifted to look at my mother. Well, I’d never seen her this way before, but…
“He means you!” my sister said. She hated confrontation and part of me was impressed with her outburst.
“If my daughter needs help, I’m going to help her. I don’t know what you expect me to do. Leave her in jail? I’ll bail her out. If she’s in the hospital, we’ll go visit her. What do you suggest I do, doc? Let her kill herself? Nah… You must not have any kids. You have kids? Go fuck yourself. You don’t know what you’re talking about,” my dad said.
The therapist was unphased by all of this and wrote down some notes on a yellow notepad. My dad was right. What was he supposed to do, let me suffer the consequences of my actions? I agreed with my father. And this made me angry.
“He’s not a doctor, you idiot,” I said.
The pastor went on to say that we could have our very own father just like the one he’d described. I imagined the Oprah episode when everyone in the audience gets a car — You get a loving father! And you get a loving father! And you…
“Gawwwwd,” the pastor said, “is that Father.”
There was a dramatic pause. A lady in the row in front of me pulled out a tissue from her fanny pack. I saw her shoulders rise and fall with each of her soft sobs. I was glad the megachurch was air-conditioned and dark. My head hurt. The night before had been spent doing things anyone else in that church building would have begged forgiveness for. But what did I need forgiveness for? I hadn’t saved up brownie points for an eternal retirement in a Heaven I couldn’t imagine. I was vomit-deep in Hangover Hell more often than not. The only reason I was even in church was to play my “good girl” act to my boyfriend’s mother’s harrowing “helicopter mom” act. (Except hers wasn’t an act.)
Asking forgiveness meant I wanted to do good but oops, I did bad instead. Asking forgiveness insinuated I wanted to behave as others hoped and expected. But I didn’t want that. It would mean I wanted to deserve the love of my father or anyone else that showed me. His intolerable love that never came stamped with any seal of judgment. His blissful encouragement that I would feel better someday soon. Out of pride, selfishness, or ignorance, I had a hard time surrendering to any option that meant I had to surrender to being wrong.
The reaction of the churchgoers around me made me uneasy. Tears made me nervous. It occurred to me that this room of almost three thousand people, souls if you will, might not have had real-life fathers willing to save them from themselves. Did this make it easy for them to want to imagine a God that loved them? Or did it make it impossible? My resentment toward my father’s unwavering love made the love of God seem repulsive. Things would get worse between me and God before they got better at all.
I sat at a cold round table in a room that reminded me of my elementary school. Shiny green linoleum and stale air-conditioning, a sterile and overly used environment. I ran my fingertips over the cold metal chain locked around my waist. Everything in jail was cold.
Family members of other inmates began making their way toward the round table that held their own imprisoned loved one. My parents found me. They looked so tired, so out of place. It had only been two months. Granted I’d never been away from them that long but, how did they age so quickly?
The deputy came around to each table, removing inmate hands from the cuffs chained to our waists. I hugged my mom. She was warm and smelled like mom. Chanel No. 5 and translucent powder. She wore new earrings.
I hugged my dad. He was warm and smelled like dad. Deodorant, mints, and his car’s “New Car Smell” air freshener that hung from a pine-tree on his rearview mirror.
My eyes met my dad’s. They were big like mine, but full of optimism, full of humor, full of faith that I’d be okay.
“You’re going to put this all behind you one day, midge,” he said. Midge, short for midget, his nickname for me when we’d all discovered I was just going to be the short one in the family. “You’re going to be okay, and when you’re ready for help, we’ll be here for you. You let me know, okay?” He put his warm hand on top of mine and patted it.
At that moment, I really believed him. I was grateful for him. I had faith in his faith. I found joy in his optimism. I felt possibility. When I was ready.
I understood at that moment he’d been acting as a surrogate. On a miniature diorama scale, he displayed love that exists for someone as undeserving as me. How much greater and holier could the love of this God I’d heard of be? How much more faithful? How much more would be possible if I’d accepted it? It overwhelmed me. But I felt it.
“NO CONTACT!” A deputy shouted from the corner of the room. “One hug at the start of visiting! One hug at end of visiting, sir!” My mom, dad, and I all jumped.
I looked at my dad, I was wide-eyed and startled.
“He just didn’t get his donut this morning, midge,” my dad said. He mimed biting into a donut, his eyes twinkled a joy that seemed to say, Let’s just make the best of this.
“I think you’re right,” I said, embarrassed by my dad’s theatrics. “I completely agree.”