Reading: Finding A Good Father at 52

Breaking The Rules

Finding A Good Father at 52

An abusive father led to myriad abusive relationships and two bad marriages. But Bob changed everything

By Spike Gillepsie

Spike Gillespie and Bob
Photo by Wyatt McSpadden (2017)

Hasty cohabitation with men I barely know is a hobby I first began pursuing in the eighties when I was in my twenties. Matt was the first. Our sort-of-living-together in each other’s dorm rooms eventually gave way to finding a little apartment together at the end of our college years, a place where he could abuse me in private without the pesky obstacle of dorm mate witnesses to hinder his methodical destruction of my self-esteem.

I got much luckier on my second try when I fell for Big Red. I met him on a cross-country trip the summer I was 24. We sent silly letters via snail mail, a segue to long-distance romance that commenced on my 25th birthday. No longer able to bear the miles between us, I fled my Knoxville apartment one night, packed what I could fit in my ’77 Dodge Aspen wagon, and hurtled through the darkness to St. Louis, where I temporarily set up camp under the pool table in his parents’ basement until we could find a dingy place to call our own.

We never married but less than two years into our relationship we had a son. Neither of us was prepared, but we did our best until, on the cusp of Henry’s third birthday, Big and I split, both of us having to confront our respective addiction demons.

Big, a kind man, and friend to this day was the exception to the subconscious rule that otherwise dictated my romantic life. With some horrifying consistency, I went on to date a parade of men who, at best, were merely elusive but at worst were abusive. Two that fell in the latter category became husbands. I married the first within six weeks of a rapid-fire email exchange and less than 72 hours of knowing each other in person. I married the second, the widowed father of one of my students, within five months, which, compared to my first marriage, seemed like a Victorian courtship. Both unions imploded inside of ten months, the recovery from each far longer.

Ten years after the second divorce, after a six-year relationship with a not bad but not right guy, I took a two-year break from dating. I was calm. I was relatively happy. There was never not the low-level background buzz, a curiosity around whether I might ever find a suitable partner, but this I could turn the volume down on with relative ease. All I had to do was reflect on the ex-husbands, the sundry other narcissists and sociopaths I had too readily shared my life with, and realize I did not want to go there again, but might not have the skills to avoid. Better alone than miserable.

And then came Mr. Evil. He sauntered into my life summer of 2015. He pulsated trouble but came after me hard. My Inner Sucker awakened from her years-long respite and dove right in. Thus began my descent into a circle of Hell not even Dante could fathom. Technically we did not move in. But I did let him move into my mind, body, and spirit with tremendous haste. We shuttled back and forth between our residences — me to his shitty, dark dirty Houston apartment, he to my recently-purchased, sunny bright ranch near Austin. He kept hidden his meth addiction, his porn addiction, his other woman. I, blinders on tight, lent him a major assist, not seeing what I did not want to see, what I see now was right there in front of me from the get-go. But then, doesn’t hindsight always make Lasik surgery pale by comparison?

At least when I brought another man into the equation, I was not secret about it. As with the others, I allowed Bob to move in knowing very little about him beyond that he was a retired Indiana farmer, a recent widower, a lover of dogs (mandatory), and thirty-six years my senior. The circumstances of his arrival were straightforward. His daughter, my good friend Ellen, lived in Austin. Bob wished to spend some time close to her as he dealt with his grief and escaped a Midwestern winter. He preferred the rural life. I had a 3200-square-foot house and thirty-untamed acres, which, given decades as an urbanite, I had no clue how to handle. I could afford him proximity to Ellen. He could teach me how to run my property. We had a deal.

Something I did not anticipate, that never even crossed my radar, was that in taking in this old man, I was giving myself one of the best gifts of my life, second only to having my son. At first, we were like ships passing in the night — Bob always out mowing and fixing fences, me forever dashing off to Houston to let Mr. Evil tell me how fat and stupid and overly-sensitive and unsexy I was, as I, fool, stuck around trying to prove him wrong. It is well-established that abusive men are fond of employing isolation as a means of keeping their victims off-balance. A tactical error Mr. Evil made was that, in dragging his sorry ass to the ranch, he put himself in the direct sights of Bob’s keen eye.

Bob smelled the rat in Mr. Evil with a nose far keener than mine. Bob also had plenty of experience with broken animals and knew better than to rush the crushed broken animal I had become. He was slow, stealthy, and consistent. He was gentle in pointing out the cruelty he witnessed, knowing that I, with my superpower of denial, would refuse to listen should he force these observations upon me in a demanding fashion.

In short, Bob became the father I had spent my entire life longing for, my own father having been an undiagnosed, mentally ill master of rage, violence, and perpetual criticism. No surprise then, that I spent so very many years, seeking out his emotional doppelgangers, hoping to change my childhood story by taming bad boys with my love. Seems so stupid, now that I have been reprogrammed by Bob’s love, how much time I wasted. But if you’ve ever tried to remake a haunting history, you know both the unavoidability and the crazy-making nature of this sick compulsion.

To be clear, I had not merely spent my thirties, forties, and early fifties running around after jerks. I really had sought help. Excellent therapists. Piles of self-help books. Meditation. Yoga. Martial arts. And these things did help. But in the end, what got me to break the cycle was something I never actively sought, never even considered was available, and so could never seek. Who thinks to herself, at 52, “Hey, I have an idea! I’ll move an old man into my house and he can re-parent me so that from now on I will have self-respect, make boundaries, and I will never be a sucker again?”

Bob actually did call me a sucker sometimes, another testament to the trust he instilled in me. Had anyone else said that to my face, I might have burst out crying or banished them from my life. Or both. But he said it in a way that implied he loved me, wasn’t giving up on me, and that really, there was no need to keep being a sucker.

Once Mr. Evil, a classic narcissist, had finally drained me of every last resource I had — love, money, time, patience, compassion — he discarded me. Rather than rejoice at this gift of freedom, initially I wallowed. Bob, day after goddamned day, listened to me cry and trotted out various refrains. I love you. He’s an asshole. You will get better. You don’t have to take shit from anyone. He did this with no fanfare, no shouting, no disappointment. Bob was just steady on, forever a twinkle in his eye, and an insistence that I get my ass out of the house and come help him take care of the chickens, the horses, the lawn.

Until at last, at long last, the stranglehold of ruminating daily over all the shit I had endured with Mr. Evil and those that came before him, began to loosen. At first, this loosening was nearly imperceptible. And then, after months, I noticed I could sort of breathe again without pain ripping through my lungs. I gathered up the ten million pieces of my shattered heart and, with Bob’s patient assistance, began to put them back together. As in that Japanese art form in which cracks are filled with gold, I let Bob’s love act as a glowing adhesive.

Do I really think that when he died, just fourteen months after arriving, his departure came because he knew I really could make it on my own at last? Not really. I’m pretty sure the COPD and three heart attacks were the real cause of his ultimate demise. But Bob brought with him so much magic, such healing, that to this day I talk to him regularly, thank him, and keep the promise I made him on his deathbed. No more shitty men.

To read more about Spike and Bob pick up Spike’s new book, The Tao of Bob.

  1. Virginia Gilbert

    As a therapist, I can tell you that Bob gave the writer a corrective emotional experience which allowed her to break her cycle of loving bad men. As a reader, I can tell you that this is one of the best first-person essays I’ve read in a long time. So moving, and so powerful. Thanks for running it.

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