The pastor reached out to me by email last Easter. He was so moved by my column about “Katie” that he read it to his congregation. When he finished, he told me, the church was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop, except for those who were crying.
Katie was my sixth grade girlfriend at a middle-class school in east Multnomah County. At 12 she was cute; six years removed from that innocence she was striking, working as a stripper and tucking into her g-string the dollar bills that came flying her way on the stage.
I was living near San Francisco by then. With six years and 600 miles between us, Katie and I had long since lost track of each other.
I found her decades later and asked if she would share her life story with me for my book about fathers and daughters. She was living in Las Vegas, after a long stint in San Diego. She’d relocated there, when she could no longer care for her two kids in Portland, and moved in with a romantic interest she’d met on the Internet.
When I first reached her by email, Katie had no interest in talking with me about her father.
“I am the wrong person for your book. My dad had nothing to do with who I am. Life did. I grew up without a dad. No…I am not pissed off…although it does sound like it with my reply.”
At 15, Katie aborted her first pregnancy. Her next 30 years were a blur of drinking, drugs, strip joints, chain smoking and men who momentarily filled the void left by a dismissive and abusive father.
Her first husband, she found out quickly, was gay. Her second dealt cocaine. A third and fourth were mixed in with three suicide attempts. Her final surrender came in 2001 when she consumed a bottle of Tylenol and chased it with two bottles of wine with as the ultimate pain reliever. She went into cardiac arrest and was in a coma for three days.
Surviving that suicide attempt was a miracle. Within a few years she experienced another miracle, with her father.
When her mother had health problems several years ago, Katie moved to Nevada to live with her for a month—and with her father, the perpetrator of violence against her as a girl. That month turned into two years.
During that time Katie began to see that she did, indeed, have a father, and that he had shaped her profoundly. An email to me about nine months later was more tempered and reflective than her first:
“You know, I really believe that my bad luck with men stems from my relationship with my father. As a grown woman in her fifties, there is still a little girl inside of me who is waiting for her knight in shining armor. I still long for the father I never had. Although these feelings are manageable now, they continue to haunt me.”
Soon after that, she agreed to meet with me and tell me her story for my book. In Nevada, Katie told me, she began venturing alone into the desert. “I found big therapy there,” she said. “You go out there and listen to nothing and you’re going to hear a lot. You can’t run from yourself anymore when there’s nowhere to go.”
During her coma in 2001 she had a communion with God. “That’s when everything turned around for me, because I didn’t see Him, but I knew there was a presence and I was somewhere I’ve never been before in this life. It’s not of this life. It was something completely different.
“I just clearly remember feeling or hearing this thought that said, ‘You have something very large to do. And you have to stay around to get it done.’”
With that spiritual awakening Katie weaned herself from cigarettes, booze, Valium, Xanax, Vicodin and Percoset. As her head cleared, so did her relationship with her father.
“From age 51 until 53, that’s when my relationship with my father was repaired, because I was repaired. I got him to try to see life sober, to see the beauty in things around him, to get in touch with himself and his feelings and his past.”
Her father began to notice the miracle that was his only daughter. “He saw me working with my art, my painting, my jewelry. He got to know how I think and how I feel. We both grew in that two and a half years and our relationship benefited from it immensely. I’m not mad at him anymore. He was a very sick man and he didn’t know how to ask for help.
“It took two years for me to realize the man loves me. He just didn’t have the right tools to show me and he didn’t have the tools to be a good parent. Now when we’re together, we have a great time. It’s almost as if he’s at peace now and he’s let go of his issues and forgiven himself.”
He first told Katie he loved her when she was 52. “I about fell over,” she said. “I actually stopped what I was doing and turned around and said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘I love you. I think you should know that.’”
Then they stood together and cried. “I told him that I’ve forgiven him. It choked me up, because I thought he was just a hard-nosed jerk. But he’s a real soft man. I think the years of abuse that he did to himself and the way his mother treated him, he just didn’t know how to get off that.
“I am truly grateful I have him now, rather than never having him and holding on to the anger and resentment that followed me all my life. How stifling it was for me and him, also.”
Katie and I stay in touch now. I recently reached out to her and asked if I could share the next chapter in her resurrection story. She said yes.
Katie now works as a mental health specialist with an agency. “Please tell those who are interested that I am now a successful person helping the mentally ill. I finally make a difference to others in a positive way. I love my job and I love my life now.
“When I went to the other side in my last suicide attempt and the voice I heard told me I had much more to do, I really believe this is it. There have been countless times when I have been filled with so much joy watching someone leave our facility and they tell me, ‘Thank You. You have no idea how much you have helped me.’ That’s when I feel God’s love bursting inside of me and I am so grateful I made the decision I did to forgive my father. I cannot even begin to describe the spiritual blessing I feel from that.
But I see it all the time in the work I do.
“This work is why He saved me. It has taught me so much. I see women come through who are so messed up. It’s like seeing myself how I used to be. My heart aches for them. They seem drawn to me and I spend a lot of time talking with them and listening to their stories. They come in all broken and sad. After two weeks, they are stable on their meds and everyday they can comprehend more reality and all the work they need to do. When I share with them parts of my own mental illness they ask me so many questions…How did you get well? What is your secret?
“Basically I tell them I give it to God and I worked very hard to save my life. When they leave they are stronger and hopeful. This makes my heart smile, that I have touched them enough to want to try.
“I hope you are as proud of me as I am of myself. It’s taken my whole life to get here. Some find their way faster than others. Some never find their way at all….but I did.”