ďAn Open Letter to My NephewĒ
Through the power of social networking, my nephew contacted us recently. I havenít seen him since he was about 5 years old. He has since graduated high school. This is an open letter to him, but also for many of the rest of us in similar circumstancesÖ
Ivy said you asked about your dad.
A simple question, but the answer is far from simple.
No one is closer to your dad than I am. From a brother standpoint, from a friend standpoint, from the standpoint of someone who always wants to see him do well...
And from the standpoint of someone who knew that someday you would ask this question.
I knew you would ask this before your sister would. I knew it because I grew up without my father and I wondered constantly what it would have been like to have him in my life. I still wonder that.
Did you know my father committed suicide when I was four years old? As I grew up, I always thought he did that because of me. Thatís a lot of guilt to be packing around for anyone, but worse for someone young.
Me then, you now.
The fact is I had nothing to do with my fatherís suicide. But it took me over 45 years to arrive at that conclusion by myself, because no one knows how to talk about such dark things. I hid my search for those answers in drugs and alcohol for many years and consider myself lucky to have made it past the damage inflicted by those addictions.
Most arenít so lucky. You need to be careful because addiction also runs in your blood. Someday, drugs or alcohol will be offered by friends or in a seemingly innocent situation. These are not true friends and the situation will not be innocent. Drugs and alcohol are not harmless diversions, they steal your soul.
I know that somewhere deep inside, you blame yourself for your dad not being in your life.
Let me save you some trouble.
Itís not your fault.
Let me say that again.
Itís not your fault.
Your dad does truly love both of you. He remembers every moment he spent with you. You were hilarious when you were young and I can tell by pictures and seeing you at the college that you havenít lost that. And you never will.
Itís a family trait. All of us are hilarious. Jacob has it, too.
Your dad has the hilarity trait, but he also carries the family trait of alcoholism.
He struggles with this daily and unfortunately, he loses that battle often. He was sober for 15 months, then started drinking again a year ago in March.
For years, I condemned him for his drinking because of the destruction it wrought in his life. That destruction is still there. It never goes away, but I donít condemn him for it anymore.
I canít. Iím not qualified.
But I avoid him when heís drinking. I donít like to see him like that.
We spend lots of time together and both of us know that keeps him sober. But it only lasts a short time. His and my actual love for each other is not stronger than his alcoholism and I donít know if it ever will be.
If your dad finds out from someone else that you and I are in contact, he would see that as a betrayal on my part. So I have to tell him.
No secrets. Our family has been destroyed by secrets.
I want you to know that you can always talk to me and trust me. My role as a husband and a father is my first priority. Everything else is next in line.
Your dad isnít at that point yet.
Until that time, consider me the next best alternative. Ivy and I both realize life turned out far better than we had any reason to ever hope for and that it didnít have to be this way.
We are thankful you are back in our lives.
It was worth the wait.
This party turned out to be a pretty big deal.
And not just for Ivy and your granny and me. There were people there that I hadnít seen since my childhood. Doctor Martinson from Virginia, Minnesota was there. I didnít really even know him at the time, but he knew who I was. He told me he was proud of me for being from a small community and being Finnish and Ojibwe and graduating from medical school. He gave me the first hundred dollar bill Iíd ever seen.
He told me that my success was much more than just mine and that it symbolized the fact that others can succeed in spite of hardships and obstacles. He believed in me and he had also believed in me from afar as I was going to college and before I even started medical school.
Ivy and my mom were so much a part of that success that this picture symbolizes that best for me. This was a very good day for all of us.
My mother believed in me and always believed I would succeed, even when others didnít believe it and when the facts pointed against it. If anyone was ever lost growing up, it was me.
Things donít always happen the way we would wish them and some of the detours and obstacles we face are huge. I know you would have wished things differently and I wish they would have been different for you, also.
But they werenít.
Who you become is somewhat determined by genetics and luck, but is mostly decided by how you respond to the difficulties life gives you and your keeping your sights on your eventual goals, whatever they are. No one can tell you what your goals should be. Only you get to decide that.
By the same reasoning, no one can tell you what your limitations are. Again, only you get to decide that. If someone tells you that something is impossible or cannot be done, they are speaking of their own limitations, not yours. You need to be careful not to listen to them or believe them, because if you do, theyíll be right.
Obstacles and hardships are not really what they seem. They are, in fact, opportunities in disguise. Seeing them this way has changed my life for the better and it will change yours. We cannot change the past and have to accept it for what it is. Itís water under the bridge. While I would not wish a broken family and chemical dependency on anyone, surviving this will help you make better decisions concerning your own eventual family. You alone know what you donít want them to endure.
Your path is shaping who you will become and who you are right now.
Your grandmother believed in me. Doc Martinson believed in me. Ivy has always believed in me.
I now officially pass this on to you. I believe in you.
Make a difference.
Arne Vainio, M.D. is a Family Practice Physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.