When I was a child, I identified with Luke Skywalker like thousands of other children. Unlike many of those kids, it wasn’t just because Luke was the brave, young hero. I sought out meaning from Luke Skywalker, because to my mind, both our fathers were evil. His father of course was Darth Vader, enemy to the Rebel Alliance and master of the Dark Side of the Force. My father was Joseph Lepczyk, a man who killed himself when I was six-years-old. Joe financially and emotionally scarred our family to the point where we never really recovered.
One important way in which Luke and I diverged was that Luke saw the good in his father. Luke had faith and Darth Vader came through. He broke his bond with Emperor Palpatine and threw him into the void, saving Luke; but sacrificing himself in the process. It was noble. It fit the mold of redemption. My father did not have the chance for redemption. If anything, his story, as I would hear more of it later in life, became darker and more complicated.
Perhaps in this narrative, my father wasn’t the one capable of redemption. Perhaps, the one to be redeemed was me.
We don’t know what happened to my father. The people who may know some of the truth never told us. Joseph Lepczyk ran a successful business auctioning rare coins. According to my mother, in that line of business, one sometimes encounters shady people. After my dad died, one of his employees told my mom that he thought my dad had a cocaine habit. The theory fits with the large sums of money, which were gone when my mom went through the family finances after Joe’s death.
Did some of those people my father have business with, also share a drug habit with him? Perhaps. In the midst of my father’s paranoia, he gave twenty-five-thousand dollars in cash to a friend for safekeeping. Upon his death, my mother approached that friend, and the man said it never happened.
Another complication related to my dad is the possibility of mental illness. Was he bi-polar? Was there something else going on? Was it a mixture of mental illness and drug addiction? It’s hard to say. Since I was so young at the time, I hardly have any memories of him, just images really. Flashes of light like an overexposed picture.
Like Luke Skywalker, I struggled with my emotions. I felt anger burn beneath my skin. I would lie in bed at night and think of this terrible man who was a part of me and think of this wonderful woman who was a part of me, and wonder what it all meant? Stories and movies provided more information for me than science and rationality. I was seven; I was eight; I probably should have talked to a therapist; but, I often chose not to talk at all. I was shy. I was observant. I wanted to be safe. I wanted to be normal.
It wasn’t until later in life, let’s say that transition from adolescence to teenage years where I moved away from the idea that my dad was part of me. Blame it on biology class and broadened perspectives. I still felt plenty of anger toward him and our circumstances; but, the anger diminished.
During my twenties, a new narrative took shape. It was that of a man whom struggled with mental illness and addiction. Because a man makes a terrible decision, does that make the man terrible? Does it negate the love he and my mother once shared? The kindness with which he used to hold us? Is a man who is burdened with withdrawal and mental illness one-hundred percent responsible for taking his own life?
I worked to forgive my father. I strove to see him not as this looming figure who ruined us; but, as a person, a real person with complications and contradictions, someone who probably loved his family; but was lost to himself. I saw my father as a person deserving pity. What I didn’t see at the time was how it would free me.
Earlier, I mentioned redemption, that perhaps I was the one rewarded redemption in this story. Traits that used to heavily define me were: anger, distrust, and distance. I didn’t want to be hurt again. If I didn’t let anyone close to me, then they couldn’t hurt me, and people would always hurt one another. Those are incorrect lessons one may learn from trauma at a young age. By forgiving my father, I walked away from that anger. By forgiving my father, I became less wary of people. By forgiving Joe, my life was more brilliant the closer I became to people.
In some ways, I still fear the parts of me that may be from my father. Based more on intuition than proof, I worry about addictive tendencies in myself. For the most part, I’ve channeled that toward exercise in my life; but, it’s something at the back of mind: am I more susceptible than most people?
The biggest challenge was my complicated feelings toward having children. I love kids. I love playing with children. Seeing the world through their eyes. I love the simplicity of needs, their focus on fun. But, being a father scared me. I had no role model in fatherhood, just a fear of letting my kids down. I wondered, if in the beginning, my father thought he was going to be a good dad? How well do we know ourselves? Then, overcoming that fear was the refrain: you are not your father, you are not your father. You. Are not your father.
As parts of this family history were revealed later in life, I learned that my mom planned to divorce my dad. I don’t know how things were. As I said, I have no real memories of them together. But, my dad become disinterested in his family. He was a different man. Things were going on and he wasn’t getting better. My father panicked? I don’t know. He flew to Washington D.C. to see his sister and mother. Later, when my mom picked him up from the airport, he was agitated. He wasn’t making sense. Something was off. I’m not sure if she said she was going to drive him to St. Lawrence Hospital at that moment or if it came a few beats later. But, while they were driving down the highway, he grabbed the steering wheel. Tried to crash the car off the road. I imagine night time. Taillights. The eery glow of painted lines swerving in my mother’s vision. I imagine the fear she must have felt, trapped in this car with my father.
She had him admitted to the hospital under psychiatric care. The hospital failed in their duty and didn’t secure the room. He found a plastic bag. I think it was a trash bag. By the time the staff made it into the room, my father’s brain had gone too long without oxygen. They revived the body, but the mind was lost. Months later my mother would have him removed from life support.
I so badly wanted heroes in my life. Pop culture filled that void in my childhood. Comic books brought me misunderstood X-Men who didn’t fit in. As I left those notions behind, I saw my mother for the hero she was. I saw her somehow gather her boys up and move to a new city. I saw her sacrifice and lead a moral life, even if it made our struggles harder. She was Rocky Balboa getting up from the mat. She was the Last Starfighter saving us all. She was a woman who did her damndest to provide a home full of food and love near the sandy shores of Lake Michigan.