Ripple Effects: Breaking the Cycle of Trauma Through Time

Photo by Luke Shadbolt

“…dreaming backwards can carry a man through some dark rooms where the walls seem lined with razor blades.”
― Rick Bragg, All Over But the Shoutin’

In 2016 I ran into my father on a visit to my mother back home. We hadn’t spoken since a family funeral in 2006 and I was fairly agitated about the encounter. He was clear headed and I had obviously caught him on a day where he hadn’t smoked anything or had been eating percocets. I was cordial. He acted as if we talked every day.

Five more years would pass before we would see each other again. When asked about him I would tell people he had died. In my mind he might as well have been dead, and there were multiple times we thought he would die. I had made a trip back once in the five years between 2016 and 2021 to check in with family members when I heard he was in the hospital. I even went to the hospital but I didn’t go in to see him. I sat alone in the parking lot. I feared what I would find and, even though I had told myself I had let go of the past and moved on, it sat there like a cold, hard rock in my chest making it hard to breathe.

I recently heard he wasn’t doing well and my 13 year old son, Connor, overheard me mention it to my wife. Connor immediately said he wanted to see his grandfather before he died.

My father came to see him when he was staying with my mother a few years prior. Well “came to see” is a little strong I guess. Connor happened to be there when he stopped by to visit my mother for some reason. My son was 3 years old and has no recollection of the visit so he pleaded with me and said “I’ve never met him.” I relented.

My mother managed to get his phone number and I called him on April 11th, 2021. He answered the phone and I responded, “Hey old man do you know who this is?”

I expected to be surprised by the sound of his voice but I was more stunned by the sound of my own. I strangely sounded so much older to myself. He immediately responded with “Yeah! How you doing it’s good to hear from you what are you up to man wow it’s good to hear from you!”. Two emotions hit me at once, a pleasant one that he was happy to hear from me and an anger that he sounded as if he were on something yet again. I concluded by the end of our call that he wasn’t on anything. He was just a 72 year old man who was suffering from the effects of 25 years of hardcore drug abuse and 50 years of alcoholism. But damn he was still my father.

“You have a 13 year old grandson who would like to see you.”

“Good! GOOD!”

We made arrangements to meet later in the day as we had to drive 3 hours back to my hometown of Jasper, Alabama to see him. I had gotten my second vaccination for Covid-19 a few days earlier and was feeling awful, but something told me I needed to get Connor up there to see him. I told myself I’d regret it if he passed away. For real this time.

There was a nearly four year stretch in the 1990s where my father was sober. It remains one of most cherished parts of my life. The trauma we had previously suffered from his alcoholism seemed a distant memory. I got to see the true person he was, and how people in our town really admired him. He was gregarious and witty, always quick with a joke. His work ethic had always been top notch but in those years he was second to none. The thing that I admired most about him at the time was that he was kind to others. Always. In those years I never heard him say a negative thing about other people and people seemed drawn to him and his outgoing personality.

But he wasn’t good at the hard things, especially when it came to parenting. He didn’t have the ability to connect on any real level with his sons, and he couldn’t have serious conversations. When I needed him most for guidance in those years he would always make a joke or redirect the conversation into something else, or say “I’m really tired from work let’s talk about it later.”

His work as a contractor on big building projects took priority over everything, and there were times he would be gone for weeks on out of town jobs. As I turned 17 he seemed to be more jealous of me than anything. I was young, an honor student, and I still had all the years ahead of me that he had wasted. Rather than helping me avoid the mistakes he had made, though, he tended to keep himself buried in his work, distant and quietly resentful. I guess a man who was a high school drop out didn’t know how to be a guiding force for someone doing things he didn’t or was unable to do. These days I like to think it was mostly not knowing how rather than not wanting to.

Those four years of sobriety felt like peace and tranquility had become permanent in our lives. For my father, though, the years were a slingshot slowly being pulled back to a breaking point. It would fire him into decades of addiction, first to painkillers and then methamphetamine. It would burn down our happiness and shred our peaceful existence that had been built from the ashes of our early years as a family- ashes from things he had previously immolated.

As I loaded our things in the car for our trip back home I started to have regrets. I told Connor his grandfather asked me to call when we got close and we would meet at the mall in town. I didn’t catch myself before I added “Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t answer.”

“What should I call your dad? Grandpa? Pawpaw? His name?” Connor had a million questions about him and my anxiety increased with each one.

“Where does he live?”

“What does he do?”

A child on the autism spectrum can be a brilliant companion in life. My son keeps me on my toes with his observations on nearly everything, and he keeps me intellectually curious about the world around me. His neurodivergent views and existential speculation are a wonder to behold at times. It also means he doesn’t see societal and familial norms in the same way others do. He doesn’t care about the shallow things we tend to judge each other on in the western world. We all could be more like him. In this instance he just wanted to meet someone new, and didn’t care that he was probably living in a old RV in the middle of nowhere.

“Talk to him about the old muscle cars you love and 18 wheelers. He actually owned some of your favorite cars.” I saw his big blue eyes light up. I knew of Connor’s penchant for pontificating on his passions so I hoped that would help us navigate the visit. Connor was well aware of his grandfather’s history. I was always honest with him when he asked about it in the past but I spared him most of the gritty details. He knew of my father’s struggles.

“Do you think he will be nice to me?”

“Of course, son.”

“Do you think he will like me?”

“Absolutely, buddy.”

I don’t recall most of the drive up. My wife Jennifer understood the gravity of the day and we rode mostly in silence. Connor read his Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and periodically stared out the window. I would look at him in the rearview mirror from time to time and a maelstrom of emotion would hit me. I really didn’t know what to expect from the day.

It had been a couple of years since I’d been back home. The interstate now bypassed a good deal of the town, and the old main drag of Highway 78 was separated from it by a good distance. The old mall still looked the same but 2 of the 3 anchor stores were gone, including the K-Mart I worked in when I was a teenager. I had recently learned there was a documentary on the Jasper Mall and how it, like so many other malls in the United States, was on its last legs. The parking lot was filled with holes and the interior design was exactly as it was when it opened in the late 1970s.

“Perfect setting for a documentary like that,” I told my wife.

We took our seats in the middle of the mall and waited. My anxiety was growing and I really wanted to leave. Even without seeing my father for the first time in years I was drowning in nostalgia. There were memories everywhere I looked, from the empty shell where the Sound Shop once stood, and where I bought so many cassettes and CDs in the 90s, to the now closed restaurants where I would meet my ex-girlfriend on our lunch breaks from the various jobs we had in the building. Most of the businesses around us were closed or out of business.

I noticed a small man walking towards us and looking around to find someone. I realized it was him.

My dad was around 4 inches taller than me when I was growing up. I inherited my mother’s height. But now he was so much smaller. We were basically the same size it seemed. I waved and his blue eyes lit up when he noticed us. He quickly walked over.

I stood up, told him hey old man, and gave him a hug. He was smaller than me. Connor couldn’t hide his excitement and he gave him a big hug too. They held it for a couple of seconds and I still can’t articulate the emotion I felt as I looked on, something like hope mixed with anger and bitterness at my father and happiness for my son. It was as if 25 years of history crashed down upon me in a moment.

We sat down at a table and, as vivid as the day is in my mind, I really can’t recall much of what was said. I looked at my dad as he talked. The effects of the drug abuse on him were apparent. He clenched his jaw, waved his arms around as he spoke, and would rapidly change the cadence of his speech like a car running off of the road and spinning back on to it. The large knots on both of his wrists were still there, a result of flipping an actual car multiple times in an accident when he was in his twenties. Connor didn’t care. He was talking with someone who had driven 18 wheelers for a living.

“…and my dad said you had a 1965 Impala and a 1968 Camaro when you were younger.”

“Yes I did and my brother wrecked it, wrecked it on a bridge wrecked it street racing. I wrecked the impala flipped it a bunch of times and hurt my wrist here. He stopped randomly waving his hands around as he talked and pointed at a different scar. You remember when I hurt this hand, Warren Alan?”

I did remember but I didn’t say more than that. It happened in 1997 when his addiction to painkillers was really getting rolling. My brothers and I later speculated he had hit his hand with a claw hammer on purpose in order to get a prescription for hydrocodone. That’s a hell of a thing for your children to think about you.

I learned his wife, the woman who he had left my mother for in 1999, had died of brain cancer only two weeks earlier. I then saw something in my father’s eyes I had only seen one other time before at his mother’s funeral- sadness and pain. He looked down for just a moment, closed his eyes, then changed the subject with a smile. It was a flicker, just as he redirected away from the negative as he always did, but it was there. I realized I had been sitting there with a heat in my chest and face, and an anger bubbling just below the surface and it dawned on me that he was hiding a great deal as well.

The emotions I felt of a past unreckoned with, the emotions of anger and bitterness, slowly subsided. As he talked I began to feel them melt and reform into something cohesive and solid. I pitied him. That was it. I’m talking to a dying man in a dying mall I thought to myself. I’m looking at a man with 50 years of his own pain and regret, a man who never had the tools to deal with it so he just kept making more mistakes and compounding the hurt. He was a man who never could get out of his own damn way, and maybe the collateral damage he created weighed upon him too.

My father’s father, Herman Tidwell, drank himself to death at the age of 49. He was a cruel man by most accounts, and the drink only made him that much worse. I’ve often wondered if his death was actually the best thing that could have happened for my father who was only 23 at the time. Herman left behind a wife, six sons, and a daughter- a family who had suffered years of torment from his alcoholism. Eighteen years earlier he had lost two of his children, a boy and a girl, to the flu in a particularly bad outbreak. A month after his death his mother would be found dead. A year later his father died of a heart attack. My father lost his father and grandparents within a year in 1972. He never mentioned it.

Life in the mining camp in Walker County, Alabama was a rough one. It’s no wonder my grandmother, Lorene, was a rough woman. She was left to try and raise seven kids who were fathered by a hell raising man. There was no doubt they would raise their own hell, especially when it came to consuming liquor and racing souped up hot rods through the coal country hollers in the Appalachian Mountain foothills of home. One of the biggest influences they ever had was a man who lived each day like the next one was likely his last, a man who lived fast and died young.

My grandmother, Lorene Manasco Tidwell, and all of her kids in 1955. My six year old father is on the right.

Because of my father’s predilection for drinking hard liquor when around his brothers, my mother had him move us across the county from them when I was young, from one old coal mining area to another. She figured the distance would make it less likely he would go on the benders he would from time to time. He only stayed gone longer when the urge to hang out with his buddy Jack Daniel would arise. As a result of that decision I didn’t know my father’s side of the family well growing up.

We left the mall to go to a local restaurant for dinner. It was such an oddly normal thing to be doing with a man I had such a complicated history with, and who I hadn’t seen in years. I wavered back and forth from being in the moment to feeling a strange sense of dissonance, as if I were existing in an alternate reality. It was far more pleasant a time than I anticipated. I decided to reminiscence on the good memories and left the elephant to sleep in the corner.

When it was time to go my son and my father shared another long hug. They told each other I love you. I gave my dad a hug and he said I love you son. I hesitated but said I love you too then hesitated before saying Dad. He smiled slightly and looked down. “Let’s get together soon, ok?” I told him we could talk about that.

It’s two weeks on since that day and he has called Connor and I every evening. We struggle to come up with things to talk about so we have reverted back to cars and racing. We also have our awkward moments where it’s obvious he is trying to come up with things for us to talk about so he will go back to his old standard subject, what he is working on at his job. His mind is like a transmission in a car that slips at times but, more often than not, he makes sense and I get a little bit of the man I used to know through the fog.

“How is uh, uh…”

“Connor?”

“Yeah yeah, Connor. How is he doing? Y’all want to come up here and go fishing or something?”

“Yeah Dad that sounds great. I’ll bring Connor up this weekend.”

He coughed and seemed to be hesitating. I let the silence absorb the moment.

“You know you’re a good daddy to Connor. You’re a better man than I ever was.” I didn’t know what to say so I said thank you. It was a serious moment from a man that I never expected and I didn’t know what to think really.

“I’ll talk to you later son. I love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Only recently have I started connecting with my roots on my father’s side. It is a journey that has forced me to revisit the most traumatic times in my life but, in doing so, has reconnected me with my father. It has brought about some understanding, and a measure of healing that has created positive memories for my son of a man I didn’t think he would ever know.

I’m proud of the cycles I have broken in the Tidwell line, and I’m so happy for the close relationship I have with my son. I’m happy that when the day comes when he loses his grandfather it won’t be with a sense of missing out and what could have been. My father and I are working through the trauma and the healing feels real. He’s lonely and I hate seeing anyone lonely, regardless of the reasons.

And I miss my Dad.

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