Ian and I chuckled as we watched a viral MMA video that came across my feed. It was the Bellator fight that had a fighter wake up from a choke hold, incoherent, and grab the ref’s legs. It was in my feed because my son-in-law Devin was the MMA fighter who delivered that choke hold. Ian and I watched it a few more times, amazed that the fighter’s first reaction after waking up was to get back in the fight and overjoyed that Devin won the fight he trained so hard for.
At first, many years ago, it scared me to know that Devin was an MMA fighter. There were too many unanswered questions. Was he too much like my father? Too much like my ex? Did he fight men because he couldn’t fight his demons? Was my daughter attracted to him because he was familiar? Did I not do enough to protect her from men who would hurt her?
Now, I know my fears were nothing more than lingering shadows of the life I broke free from.
After the video, I reiterated how much it still surprises me that my kind, compassionate son-in-law fights for a living.
Ian said, “Yeah, but Devin would probably destroy someone that got him mad enough.”
“Not true,” I said.
I told Ian a situation I witnessed at a bar where a drunk guy was hitting on Carol Linn—his wife, my daughter. Instead of getting mad, Devin and his friends chuckled. But their laughter angered the guy, so he decided to call me and Carol Linn bitches and threw out a racial slur to one guy and called Devin and the other guys pussies, which resulted in more chuckles. Drunk guy had no idea he was insulting a group of MMA fighters (me the only exclusion).
Growing up with a father who was a fighter, in and out of the ring, I kept looking at Devin to see if he was going to retaliate. My father would have knocked drunk guy out by now. But not Devin. He had no intention of hitting him. In fact, none of them did, even though they each had had at least a few drinks by this time as well. Since the guy wouldn’t leave, we left the bar.
“Why didn’t you at least tell him to shut his mouth?” I asked.
Devin’s only response was, “What would be the point?”
As we walked to the next bar, I pulled from every encounter I’ve had with Devin to understand his response. Doing nothing was based on more than futility. Devin is a man of principles. He takes his sport seriously. He respects every person who gets into that cage because of the discipline it takes to get there. He punches and kicks and chokes people out because to not fight them with everything he has would be an insult to his competitors. It shows the respect he has for the sport. A drunk man in a bar does not deserve Devin’s respect.
“That’s cool,” Ian said.
“Besides,” I added, “if Devin ever hurt someone outside of the cage, he could get arrested for using a deadly weapon.”
“What? Is that really true?” he asked.
“Devin is a professional fighter; therefore, he’s a deadly weapon. I know this because of my father,” I then told Ian about the grandfather he never met.
I was probably around ten when I heard the grownups talk about what they had to tell the judge at the hearing the next day. My father had recently gotten into a fight, a pretty normal occurrence. Three things my father loved to do were drink, gamble, and fight, and they seemed to be interconnected. I remember my father actually had to practice opening his hand when he talked about how he broke the guy’s nose in the fight—an open hand is far less damaging than a closed fist—especially for my father who had been a professional boxer. If the witnesses testified that my dad slapped the guy, he might stay out of jail.
Ian was in awe at this point. “That’s crazy.”
“Wait. There’s more.” I enjoyed telling these stories about my dad. I had stopped talking to my dad by the time Ian was born—and I wanted Ian to know his grandfather the way others saw him. The man who was a complete badass. The man who inspired others to brag about witnessing his legendary exploits. I wanted to share the legend’s stories as fiercely as I wanted to shut out the other ones.
I told Ian about one incident during the last year of my father’s life. He had moved back to Bitola and was still drinking, gambling, and smoking—even after two strokes—and apparently still fighting without the use of the left side of his body. He was barely able to walk, but he could sit at a casino table and enjoy the camaraderie with his friends. One day, two Greek men in their early 20s walked into the establishment and acted like they were too good for the “village” casino. Then, they made some sexual comments to the cocktail waitress, but in Greek, so she didn’t understand them. But my father did.
My father was a polyglot. He was maybe 16 when he illegally crossed the Greece/Macedonian border and was arrested and sent to a type of prison/concentration camp. That’s where he says he learned to fight and to speak a number of languages. In addition to all the Slavic languages, he became fluent in Greek.
So of course, my father tells the young Greeks to shut their mouths. There was no way pompous assholes were going to insult one of my father’s “friends,” especially since she brought him drinks.
The Greeks started laughing at him, and said, in Greek, “Who’s going to stop us old man? You?”
Imagine what this scene looked like. It’s truly the thing legends are made of. Without the use of the left side of his body, my father somehow jumped over the table, knocked the one guy to the ground with one right hook, and then started pummeling the other guy with his right hand until two security officers carried my father out of the casino—because the physical exertion took away my father’s ability to walk. Meanwhile, the two Greeks were left on the ground, in shock, that an old crippled man had just kicked their asses.
“That’s insane. Is this really true?” Ian asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Two eyewitnesses told me the story at my father’s funeral, which was a few months after the ass-kicking incident.”
“Wow. That’s an incredible story,” Ian chuckled.
My grief and guilt over shutting my father out was convoluted even more with these incredible stories that didn’t gel with the father I knew. That’s pretty much how I learned that my father had a public and private persona. Other people knew the legend; I knew the man who fought his demons when he looked into my and my mother’s eyes.
Without warning, I began to cry. Sharing the legend with Ian also unpacked the painful memories I hadn’t thought about in years.
“Are you okay, Mom?”
It’s ironic that the healthier I get, the more I cry. It’s taken many years of therapy to get here, but I now know that they are cleansing tears. It’s how I heal my inner child. The child who was not allowed to cry or show pain, who had to accept her needs not getting met. I love that sad, lonely little girl, and allowing her to cry now validates her pain and confirms that she had been wronged.
Learning to comfort my younger self has also taught me to be a better mother. I think about all the things she needed but never got, and I have made sure my children get their needs met, even while I battled with meeting my own as a grown woman.
“Yeah, bud. I’m good. It’s just that I didn’t have a great relationship with him.” This is how I parent—through honest conversations and stories. By revisiting my past, I can teach my children how to revisit theirs, how to overcome inevitable obstacles, how to become stronger through adversity, how to use stories as fuel for the people they want to become.
The first story I shared with him was when I went out to lunch with my dad after Carol Linn was born. He was finally going to meet his second granddaughter, and I was excited to show him the woman I was becoming. No longer just the girl who had a child out of wedlock, embarrassing the family, but now a married mother of two beautiful girls, running my own household. I felt confident, hoping he would see it and be proud. We looked at the menu and when the waitress approached, I ordered a sandwich and fries. My dad put down his menu.
“Fries? Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Why?” I asked.
“Well, you’re getting fat,” he said. He turned to the waitress and said, “Give her a salad instead.” And just like that, I was down for the count.
“He called you fat?! Why would he do that?” Ian has never heard me talk that way to him or the girls. He was livid.
“That’s just how he was—at least with me.”
The other story I shared was when I met one of my dad’s friends at the Greek restaurant where I worked. When I found out this man was Macedonian, I asked him if he knew my father.
He said, “Of course I know him. He’s one of my good friends.” He looked at me a little confused, “You’re his daughter? I knew he had sons but never knew he had a daughter.”
The years of being invisible (unless I got him angry) and feeling unworthy of love kept me an insecure child for far too many years. Even now, I have to fight to remember that I am worthy and always have been. However, these painful experiences have made me a better mother. My children know that I am and always will be their biggest fan.
“Mom, that’s so wrong. Why didn’t he tell people about you?”
“I don’t know. He came from a different world, a different time—a man’s world, and I was just a girl.”
“That’s bullshit,” he said.
His anger made me realize that this was the first time I had shared any of my past pain with him. Did he get a glimpse of how the child I was helped me become the woman and mother I am?
“It was bullshit,” I said as I wiped the tears away. “Sorry, bud. The pain still comes to the surface sometimes.”
I got up busying myself with laundry, worrying that my honesty had made him too uncomfortable, worrying that knowing about my past might negatively affect his future.
The next thing I knew, Ian wrapped his arms around me. “I love you, Mom.” He held me tight, the way I have held him in hospital beds, on my lap, during physical and emotional pain throughout the years.
Wrapped in his embrace, I felt the last lingering shadow give up the fight and disappear.
Pauline Hawkins is a published author of two books: Uncommon Core, 25 Ways to Help Your Child Succeed in a Cookie Cutter Educational System, a self-help for parents published by WordCrafts Press in 2015, and For I Am Yours, a children’s illustrated book published by WordCrafts Press in 2019. She is also a writing instructor at Great Bay Community College and the host of a live talk-radio show/podcast, All In with Pauline Hawkins at WSCA 106.1 FM Portsmouth Community Radio.