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Writer asks, ‘How do we find a path to forgiveness?’
Tube City Almanac contributor Vickie Babyak has been participating in the Tube City Writers’ workshop, a program of Point Park University that’s being led by freelance photographer Martha Rial. The group meets on alternate Tuesdays at the Tube City Center for Business and Innovation (former Daily News Building).
Vickie has graciously shared this piece, which she wrote as part of her work with the writers’ workshop.
My daughter added me to a Facebook group that focuses on growing in spiritual logic and how to master your reconstruction.
Every day there’s a question to reflect on, and this question was something I wanted to answer:
“When do you feel most like yourself and do you embrace that every day, or is it the last thing you think of and are there certain times of the day or things that trigger this remembrance? It’s weird how little things can trigger pain, and we will succumb to the sadness, but when it comes to triggering ourselves to be our better selves, what do we do? How do we find a path to forgiveness?”
I focused for a moment and it wasn't difficult to answer. I feel most like myself when I'm creating artwork, taking photos of beautiful nature, and caring about people.
Memories of my family stay with me every day; two of my brothers, my parents, a step-parent, and my grandparents are deceased.
I remember the way my family life affected me and its story consists of a lot of chaos — but most of all love.
I know families don’t have perfection in their lives, but I thought my family was one of the least perfect families in the world.
We have a history of divorce, alcoholism, addiction, mental health issues and great loss. When I think back, I remember some of the things that happened and how they caused terrible pain.
My parents got married right out of high school. My dad drank beer on a daily basis and my mom had an anxiety/panic disorder; it wasn’t a good combination for a marriage, and three kids later, they got divorced.
Although my dad drank and my mom had anxiety/panic disorder, they each cared deeply about their children.
My siblings and I visited our dad on weekends. We had a great time staying up late watching Chilly Billy, eating pizza, going to movies, taking motorcycle rides, sailboating and listening to him practice bass guitar with his country and western band.
We always looked forward to seeing him — because we never got over missing him.
When I was 13 years old, my dad came in the middle of the week to take us out. It was January 1973. Mom let us go, even though it was a weeknight.
He took us to his buddy’s house and the guys practiced playing guitar for a while. My dad's girlfriend and her little boy were with us. Dad said he’d have us home at a reasonable hour, so after a while, it was time to end the evening.
I had this feeling that I didn't want to let go that night, and it was a strong feeling, beyond normal.
Since he had a shattered ankle and was wearing a cast, all of us kids signed it for fun.
“Dad, are you coming back on the weekend?” I asked.
“Sure, I'll be there,” he said.
“Do you promise?” I asked, holding him tight. We finished our goodnights with kisses and bear hugs. Sometimes, I close my eyes and try to remember that moment — that last big, bear hug.
A few days later, early in the morning, my uncle came to our house before we had left for school. My father had passed away in the middle of the night. A faulty furnace led to carbon monoxide poisoning.
It wasn’t his fault, but I missed him and the pain was too much for that teenage girl to bear.
Eventually, I realized God gave us a chance to say goodbye and it was a blessing. I hold that thought close to my heart and it brings comfort.
Having an anxiety disorder meant my mom would sometimes become angry about the smallest things. Other moms didn’t yell like my mom did. It could be very unpleasant.
But she was kind, and she loved us. I especially remember the time all six kids had viruses. Our black poodle-terrier mix, Angel, got sick too.
Angel had to be euthanized and I was heartbroken. I felt so guilty.
“Maybe I got the dog sick and that's why she died?” I asked my mom.
Mom hugged and soothed me saying, “Things like this happen, dogs don’t catch the flu from people and it wasn’t your fault. Please, try not to cry.” And she cried with me.
My maternal grandmother, Grandma Sally, also had mental health issues. From the upstairs apartment at my great-grandma's house, we’d hear her yelling and cussing at someone. We never knew who she was mad at, but she was mad as hell at someone.
Sometimes one of us would call up the steps. She would calm down and offer us a ham salad sandwich with a tomato slice, and a glass of Tom Tucker’s ginger ale. She’d fix little snack bags and she told the best stories, always using humor when she talked about her life. She wrote poetry, took dancing lessons, and played a ukulele in her younger days.
She also walked in high heel shoes over top of the Boston Bridge in Versailles Borough. Her heart broke when my mom died. Parents don’t bury their children and she followed my mom in December 2004.
My brother, David, was an alcoholic and it was tragic to see how his life deteriorated. Alcohol took over his personality. He lost relationships and those that loved him would distance themselves.
Dave was 17 months younger than me. He tried hard to get sober, and I cherished those times. He was my partner in crime; we played together and shared the same family heart aches while growing up. He was my buddy, and most like me in adulthood — when he was sober. We had great conversations about current events.
He was born with a hole in his heart that would require repeated surgeries, and he experienced physical and emotional pain as a kid. I remember the time he was so angry that he punched his fist through glass in the screen door and got stitches in his hand.
Although a formal diagnosis didn’t come until later in life, he had depression and turned to alcohol to medicate himself. When that didn’t work any longer, he started taking drugs.
The last time I saw him, David promised he was going to stay sober, but then he stopped talking with me and I knew his addictions had overpowered him.
After two open heart surgeries close together, his body wasn’t strong. He passed away in January 2018 of an overdose of drugs and alcohol.
His daughter and I identified his body before cremation. I can’t explain the emotions I felt, and I hope to never experience them again.
As we were deciding what memorial card to print, a feeling of warmth surrounded me. It was as if my brother was hugging me, quietly saying, “I’m sorry, I love you, I love you all.”
And I wanted to say to him, “Dave, I know you are free from addiction, guilt and sorrow.”
My younger brother Brian had all the girls chasing him. He was so cute!
At 14, he became a handful for my mom and step-father. He was in trouble all the time — skipping school, giving Mom a hard time and lying to her. And matters got worse, even with discipline.
Brian was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and we never knew what was going to happen. He had hallucinations and heard voices. Once he thought he was Jesus, and another time he thought he was the drummer in a band called Snake.
When it got too bad, the police would come to take Brian to the hospital. They had to chase him through the house — he would yell and fight, and he was scared.
Although he was tortured by his own mind, he had a kind heart. Yet people were wary of him.
Sometimes he was a mess. He wouldn’t take a shower for days at a time, he smoked constantly and he just looked odd. It bothered me when people would stare or laugh at him.
He went through an episode of walking backwards, and I don't remember how long it lasted.
It was kind of funny — definitely strange. I always wondered how my brother could walk backwards everywhere he went. He even walked up and down stairs backwards.
I was divorced with two little girls and lived in an upstairs apartment on Woodland Street.
One day, Brian stopped by to have a cup of coffee. After he finished, he smoked a cigarette and was ready to leave. I could tell by his routine that he was troubled. He’d inhale a deep breath, hold it and then exhale while rubbing his chest. I think it was a way he distracted himself from the voices in his head.
As he left, I watched him from my window, because I was worried about him. At the corner of the building, he turned around and paused. I was so excited. I asked myself, “Is he going to start walking normally again?”
Then, he walked around the corner. Backwards.
He died before my mother in April 2000, his death caused by negligence at a state hospital, and his body wasn’t found for almost an hour.
I prefer to remember his kindness and how much he loved his family. He used to say, “Mom, I'm going to buy you a mansion someday, you won't have to work no more and it's going to be really beautiful.”
I like to imagine he had a mansion ready for Mom when she left our world to meet him. My step-father joined them both in October 2011.
Sure, other moms didn’t scream like my mom. But she also was a comfort and always had words of wisdom for us to ease our pain.
When I was bullied as a kid, I thought it would never end. She reassured me, saying I was not the problem; the bullying had nothing to do with me.
“When people try to hurt you, whether you have possessions or character, there’s something about you they’re jealous of and wish they had what you have,” she said.
I passed those words of advice to my daughters. It’s our little joke we use to cope when people are rude to us. We tell each other the person was just jealous, and then we laugh.
It helps ease the hurt or anger we might feel. If “Grandma” said people treat you disrespectfully because they are jealous, then it’s true.
When Mom was dying from soft tissue sarcoma, a rare cancer, she made sure to let us know she was sorry if she made mistakes, she wished she knew everything then she did now, and that she loved us.
I was there when she took her last breath. It was July 2003, I didn’t want to let go, I hugged her and kissed her forehead, “Mom, I love you.” She journeyed to a beautiful place where she could rest without pain.
As I continue to find my path of forgiveness to feel complete, I hope it has a ripple effect, spreading light and knowledge to others.
It’s never easy to heal yourself. But throughout the chaos I found comfort, because I knew I was loved. Isn’t that what’s most important?
Vickie Babyak is a photographer and freelance writer from Dravosburg. She dedicated this story to “my sister, surviving brothers and my daughters.”
She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Originally published December 31, 2019.