My father sat behind the wheel of his 2006 silver Chevy Trailblazer, gazing ahead, wondering what he had done wrong.
He had been out of the house for several months, and was confused about why my mom wanted a divorce after 20 years of marriage.
By that point, my brother, sister and I had witnessed dysfunction and fighting that had escalated during the past year. We all knew his alcoholism was worsening. Still, I decided to give my dad a chance to prove his worth that afternoon in 2011.
“You have to start acting like a man,” I said to him.
“I know,” he replied as tears started to trickle down his face. “I’ve been hearing that a lot lately, Steve.”
Today, I still question the validity of his first two words.
Nearing the halfway point of my college career, I can’t complain about life. I’ve had the great opportunity to work at The Temple News, and have met several fine individuals along the way. Honestly, many of their personal troubles are probably worse than mine.
Last month, my mother called me and uttered a few words that provided our family closure, after more than three years of financial and personal heartache.
“He signed, Steve,” she said. “He signed the papers.”
She was referring to the official divorce papers that my father had refused to sign for about two years. My mom was worried she wouldn’t be able to adequately raise her three kids, even though she has helped me significantly in funding my education at Temple.
The sad part is that my story is far from unfamiliar for most families in this state. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health statistics, 34,233 divorces and annulments – the latter of which legally wipes marriage from having ever happened – occurred in Pennsylvania in 2013. Meanwhile, there were 69,344 marriages recorded in the same year.
This trend has stayed fairly consistent since 2002, showing that the issue of divorce has been prevalent throughout the state for about the past decade.
But these numbers can’t describe the specifics of each case. For instance, the fact that my parents divorced is actually a positive milestone. If it weren’t for my mother’s strength, I wouldn’t be motivated enough to be pursuing a journalism degree, especially when my dad continued to doubt whether I would be able to make it in the business.
But there are still hardships. My brother was the first to turn against my dad – and in hindsight, he’s a genius. On the other hand, my sister’s heart and forgiving nature tried to make amends for my dad’s behavior.
I could never blame a girl who, in her developing teen years – she turned 15 earlier this month – tried to connect with her father. But through this decision, multiple family members have attempted to manipulate her thoughts and emotions, resulting in stress that would mentally break several people at her age. In this regard, my sister has more fortitude than my brother or I could ever even imagine to have.
It’s understandable why part of my family has disrespected my mother during these past couple of years. However, targeting the youngest member of my immediate family is the act of a true coward, especially when my father can’t find the willpower to fight his own disease.
For me, navigating life through the separation and divorce hasn’t proved difficult, because I shut myself out of the situation. I’ve lived life through a selfish philosophy – keep your head down, work hard, and focus on your own priorities. I’ve never tried to address my father’s problem head-on, so the irony is that in our relationship, I probably am a coward myself.
Then again, should a son ever be expected to take care of his father in his adolescent years?
Whatever the case may be, I’ve tried to respect people for who they are, considering I’m extremely fortunate to be where I am. Both my parents attended community college, before becoming fully invested in a family retail business. If I play my cards right, I’ll be earning a bachelor’s degree from Temple in May 2017.
This has been the most I’ve sat down and actually reflected on the issue of my dad and his alcoholism, at least in writing.
I’m certain his alcoholism will be a disease that will be problematic for the rest of his life, given he doesn’t have the support group around him needed for change. Maybe if that potential group reads this, that could happen – or, they could see it as a rant from a 20-year-old who never gave his father a chance.
The truth is, they’re right. After that conversation in the Trailblazer four years ago, I knew where I stood. And today, I’m damn proud of it.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at email@example.com.