He realized the life he left behind included family, acceptance and most importantly—love.
- Posted on Apr 15, 2019
Every time I looked at the purplish snowcapped mountains or heard the rush of the waterfall near my home in Seward, Alaska, I felt a deep sense of gratitude. It had taken many years and many moves—clear across the country from where I’d started out in upstate New York—but I’d finally made something of my life. I had a nice place to call home, a fulfilling career and the respect of my boss and buddies. Then one day in 1991 I got a phone call that all too painfully brought back the past I had tried so hard to forget.
“Hi, Dad. It’s Lorie. Your daughter. Surprised?”
I hardly recognized her voice, and I barely remembered what it felt like to be called “Dad.”
I sat in shocked silence as Lorie went on pleasantly, almost giddily, as if the 16 years of silence between us had been only 16 days. “I’m getting married, Dad. In January.”
“Oh, that’s … wonderful,” I managed to say.
“I was hoping you could get some time off to come to the wedding. I’d like you to give me away. Please?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Can I call you in a couple of days?”
“Sure, Dad,” she said, using that strange word again.
After I got her phone number, I hung up, dazed. How different she sounds! The affection in her voice stunned me. What could she be thinking? She had every right to hate me. Even for the first few years of her life, when I was still married to her mother, I hadn’t been much of a father. How could she want me to give her away? I paced around the house, my insides churning. Finally, I collapsed onto a big chair in my bedroom, closed my eyes and let my mind wander back…
I was on leave from the Marines in 1964 when I met a beautiful woman named Louise. By August the next year we were married. I finished my tour of duty in December 1965. Louise and I settled in upstate New York, and had three kids—Steven, Jim and Lorie—in four years.
Life after the Marines was harder than I’d imagined. I jumped from job to job. Either they didn’t pay enough to support a family, or they just didn’t suit me. I’d never particularly enjoyed my time in the service, but now I missed the structure. Louise started working part-time as a telephone operator, which got us through the ever-longer gaps in my employment. She can cope, I thought. How come I can’t? I knew she was trying to help, but it only made me feel more inadequate.
I had gone straight from my parents’ house to the service to a marriage and family. I deserve something just for me, I decided. About five years into our marriage I met another woman. One day I just up and left town with her. A few weeks later I slunk home with my tail between my legs, begging Louise to take me back. I swore it would never happen again. “If you really want to change, Cliff,” she said, “I believe you can do it.”
But no matter how much I told myself things would be different, they stayed the same, except worse. I kept running off and coming back. By 1975 Louise had had enough. “We can’t go on like this, Cliff,” she said. “I love you, but it’s too hard on me. And the children. This time I want you to leave for good.”
“If that’s how you want it, fine!” I shouted. We agreed to a divorce. Once I walked out the door, I never looked back. Now I could live the way I wanted. Finally I’m free.
I drifted from town to town and woman to woman, drinking, and smoking lots of pot. By the time I landed in Alturas, Calif., I couldn’t hold down even a menial job. I started selling drugs, just enough so I could afford to maintain my habits. I was living in oblivion and squalor.
Then one day I sat on the edge of a lake a few miles outside town, watching a woman I knew in a rowboat with her two children. She drained half a bottle of wine, and for no reason started berating one of her kids. That’s not like her, I thought. She’s a good person. It’s the booze making her act like that.
All of a sudden I saw through the haze of the past 10 years. Is that how I look to other people? I was just as badly off as that woman. I’d thought I would be free, but instead I had become crippled by drinking and drugging, a slave to my own demons. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d talked to God. Something made me do it now. Don’t you see what’s happening? I demanded. Why don’t you help?
I didn’t think he’d listen to a screwup like me. But he must have, because an answer came: Why don’t you?
Me? What could I do? It was too late to change, wasn’t it? Maybe, though, I could help other people before they ended up in the same sorry state.
About a week later, still filled with the determination from that day at the lake, I walked into the Modoc County Sheriff’s Department and talked to Sergeant Mike Crutcher. I told him my story, and said I wanted to help. It turned out there was something I could do: work undercover to break up drug rings in the area.
Switching sides in the drug war was not easy, but I knew it was what I had to do. It was my one chance to redeem my life. I owed it to society, and to God, who had challenged me to help. Plus, I discovered I had a knack for the job. I worked all over the West Coast, eventually winding up in Alaska.
Best of all, I was finally able to get off drugs myself. It was the hardest thing I ever did, but whenever I felt like going back to my old ways of coping, something would happen to let me know I was headed in the right direction.
Such as the time I ran into a woman I’d helped put in jail. She was just being released as I walked into the sheriff’s offices. I braced myself for a slap in the face or a flurry of obscenities—the usual type of greeting you’d get from a criminal you’d gotten locked up. Instead, she smiled and kissed my cheek. “You changed my life,” she said, tears rolling down her face. “I’m clean now. I still have a husband and children to go home to. Thanks to you, I’m getting a second chance.”
Second chance, I thought, sitting in my house in Seward. Now—even though I’d walked out on my family, on my life—my daughter wanted to give me a second chance, one I didn’t deserve. I decided I’d do whatever it took to be there for Lorie’s wedding. I didn’t want to let her down again.
The day my plane landed at the airport in Syracuse, N.Y., I was a nervous wreck. Seeing my kids grown, I felt as if I were meeting complete strangers. Until I saw Louise. She hasn’t changed a bit, I marveled.
We had talked on the phone before I’d left Alaska. She had a spare bedroom in her trailer, and said I could sleep there. I’d agreed, even though I was uncomfortable with the prospect. It’s just for a couple of nights, I told myself.
The following days were a blur of last-minute preparations. Still, I managed to arrange time alone with my children. “I’m not going to give you any excuses,” I told each one. “And I’m not expecting you to let me just walk back into your life. But I would like to be here for you, now.” I asked them to forgive me, and all three did. Their warmth and acceptance astonished me. Before I got a chance to talk to Louise, though, it was Lorie’s wedding day.
I was so proud walking her down the aisle. At the reception I felt myself easily slipping into my role as Father of the Bride. While posing for pictures, without thinking, I wrapped my arm around Louise’s shoulder. She glanced at me and smiled. And then it hit me: This was the life I left behind. A family, acceptance, love. I could have had all this, but I threw it away. I felt like a rat, and it stirred up that old familiar urge to run. Do I even deserve to be here?
When we got back to Louise’s trailer, she sat in the living room and said, “We need to talk.”
I knew she was right, but I couldn’t deal with any more. “I just want to go to bed,” I answered curtly.
I woke 11 hours later. When I walked into the living room I found Louise waiting for me. “We really need to talk, Cliff,” she said. “Sit down.”
I sat. “I’m sorry,” I started off. As with the children, I didn’t make any excuses. I accepted responsibility for my actions. “I know I hurt you.”
“If you only knew how much,” Louise said.
“I don’t blame you if you can’t forgive me,” I said, staring at the floor. “I’m not sure I can forgive myself.”
Our conversation was long and intense. We covered the last 16 years, the anger, pain, guilt and loneliness. And somehow, by the time we were through, Louise was able to forgive me. It felt like the greatest gift I’d ever received.
But I was ready to leave. I don’t fit here. I have my own life now.
Soon after I got back to Alaska, Louise called. We began speaking regularly, and I looked forward to our calls. In the spring she came to visit me during her vacation. By the time she left, something incredible had happened: I had fallen in love with her all over again.
One night I walked down the driveway, listening to the crickets. The setting sun washed everything with an orange-pink glow. The mountains stood in the distance. I was surrounded by all the things that usually inspired and comforted me. But something was missing. Overwhelmed, I fell to my knees. I’ve asked everyone to forgive me, I prayed. Everyone but you. You’ve given me so much already. Please, give me one thing more.
Despite the chill in the air, a tender warmth came over me. I felt blanketed in love, assurance and an abiding peace. God had forgiven me —long before I’d even asked. He got me off drugs, found me a good job, helped me face my past. By accepting his forgiveness I was finally free to forgive myself. Now I knew exactly what it was I had to do. “It’s time,” I said to the crickets and the mountains. “I’m going home.”
I returned to New York, where I found steady work as a private investigator. Slowly I rebuilt my relationship with my family, and in April of 1993, Louise and I remarried. It took many years and many moves for me to end up almost right back where I’d started. But this time there is a difference: I am finally living the life God meant for me to live.
This story first appeared in the March 1999 issue of Guideposts magazine.