With Fathers Day upon us, I’m sure the Interwebs will be filled with daddy accolades, as well they should. Bright, cheery, happy memories & thoughts & plans & poems & wishes. What a wonderful day to have a daddy!
Maybe I should write a blog post like that, but although my dad was a huge fan of fun & silly & happy, I think he’d prefer that I remember him today with the clarity he left me. It’s entirely possible that my father taught me the greatest lesson of my life by dying.
You see, I didn’t know how to forgive. Not only did I not know how, I simply didn’t want to. I enjoyed wrapping myself in blankets of bitterness & self-righteous anger. I cozied up with hatred, keeping judgment & reproach as my bedfellows.
I held on to every injury, real or perceived, & tallied them up in a mental journal which I tucked onto a shelf deep, deep down in a hidden, dark place of my psyche.
There were the major, obvious injuries that most people didn’t know about but me – physical, mental, & sexual abuse and rape. There were the minor offenses, like when my childhood best friend ditched me for someone new. Let’s not forget the petty injustices of being denied things I wanted as a teen, like a later curfew.
I gathered each & every one, & I kept them safe. Kept them close to me. Used them as guides to avoid ever being hurt by someone in that way again. Pulled them out to remind myself of how people are unworthy, why I should never let anyone get too close. Compared entries & told myself, “See? This person did all these things, so you don’t need to love them…to care what they think…to worry about them. They’re nothing. They don’t matter.”
I don’t know when I started doing this, but I recall entries from as early as grade school. I don’t know for certain exactly why I started doing this, but I think it has something to do with the guilt & shame that’s dogged me much of my life. Perhaps as a way to redirect anger from myself. Maybe victim mentality.
We could probably analyze the whys & hows for days…but that’s not why I’m writing this.
My dad had not only made my list, he was a headliner with many entries & his own section in the glossary. There were plenty of things he did to get on the list himself. He’d definitely earned his spot. He was abusive toward both my older brother & me, verbally & physically. Add to that my mother’s contributions to why I should hate him (& then that I shouldn’t hate him…talk about confusing), & his place in my log book was guaranteed.
I have two distinct, early memories of his abuse, & I’m not sure which one happened first. Both occurred before age 5, though. Both involved him beating my brother & screaming insults at him. Both times, he didn’t know I was watching. Both incidents instilled mind-numbing fear in me.
It was only a matter of time before that fear incurred his wrath, and so my childhood became a cycle of fear, avoidance, humiliation, anger, & abuse.
I mentioned sexual abuse, & there was, but not from my father. I’ll not have the man maligned for something he didn’t do.
But he did strike me in anger, resulting in bruises, bloody lips, & one time, a bloody backside when he spanked my bare bottom with a hairbrush. (That burns incredibly badly, by the way.)
If I was still keeping my aforementioned journal, I would keep listing injuries & recounting horror stories of my father. But I’m not. My dad taught me it wasn’t worth it.
After he & my mom finally divorced when I was a teenager, I saw him minimally & talked to him only occasionally. Quite frankly, I was terrified of him. And I was still angry with him. But mostly I was terrified.
I got married but didn’t have him walk me down the aisle. He was only asked to be in one of the photos. The last time I ever saw him was at my little sister’s high school graduation the Spring after my wedding. I feigned a confidence I never had & spouted positive cliches & blow-off phrases to every depressing comment he made. “He’s so negative,” I told my new husband later.
Then I cut my dad out of my life altogether.
For three years, I told my family not to give him my address, phone number, email address, or anything else. I wanted nothing to do with him. I hated him. Here I was, a grown adult with a husband & a career, & I was so incredibly broken…and I blamed him.
The lyrics from an Everclear song (Father of Mine) sum it up painfully well.
I will never be safe / I will never be sane / I will always be weird inside / I will always be lame
I didn’t realize then how little he had to do with it, actually. Or rather, how many other things combined with his abuse to create that broken girl-woman. It was impossible for me to see it, because I was so angry with him. I couldn’t forgive him. I didn’t know how.
Oddly enough, the thing that brought him back into my life was genealogy. I had started researching my ancestry, & my mother could only answer so much about my dad’s side of the family. She encouraged me (again) to call him & ask my questions. My curiosity outweighed my fear (which had had three years to settle down), so finally, I did.
And we kind of, sort of, picked back up again where we’d left off. And suddenly my dad was telling me things that, had I been able to forgive him & stop being angry with him, I could have countered. Like six months after we started calling & emailing each other when he told me that, on the failure of his third marriage, he didn’t believe anyone could ever love him & no one ever would. In the face of his brokenness, it was pretty hard to maintain the anger, & the words hovered on my lips. A part of me wanted to be a little girl with her daddy. But I didn’t tell him. I didn’t tell him that I forgave him. I didn’t tell him that I loved him. I chuckled nervously & said that lots of people cared about him. Not loved…cared. Not me…lots of people.
You & I both know what he was really saying. Or rather, what he was really asking. And we both know I failed.
That was my last conversation with my dad. He died of a brain aneurism a couple days later.
Despite all of the things he did, I also have memories of riding on his shoulders & laughing as a little girl, his hilarious Donald Duck impression that hurt his throat to do but that he did anyway because it made me laugh, the story he used to tell us of when he was a teenager & dove into the public pool from the high dive only to have his swim trunks explode, the way he told me he was proud of my work ethic, the old 45s he’d pull out just so my sister & I could listen to them, the times I overheard him bragging to friends about my awards for music & theater (but never for sports…I don’t know why).
But when it mattered most, I clung to my anger. When I had the opportunity to heal a part of me without even knowing it, I blew it off.
My dad died, & for the very first time, I understood the finality of a truly lost relationship. Something beyond repair. Irrevocable loss.
When I received the phone call about my dad – that he was in a coma & it didn’t look good – the forgiveness was instantaneous. Suddenly the fear I’d always harbored toward my father was overwhelmed by the fear that I wasn’t going to get to correct that heinous mistake from our last conversation. And sure enough, I didn’t get to tell him how much I loved him.
My dad died, & in that moment, I learned what my refusal to forgive actually cost me.
And it haunts me.
No, I don’t romanticize it & think we would have had a perfect relationship or that I would have trusted him completely or have been incredibly secure or whatever else “normal” daddy/daughter relationships look like. But I know I would have had an extra three years of trying to rebuild something that mattered to me.
I tried to cut out people & relationships whom I blamed for my pain…& some of them definitely were responsible…but because I couldn’t forgive, I couldn’t discern which relationships should go & which should stay.
My dad died, & I finally understood how forgiveness wasn’t for him, but it was for me instead.
I’d always thought it cliche, but it’s true. My lack of forgiveness hurt my dad, but it hurt me more. Not only did I cheat myself out of any kind of relationship with my father for three years, then condemn myself to a lifetime of wondering if he knew how much I loved him, but the refusal to forgive him carried over into other relationships, including my marriage. It affected how I viewed men in general while clouding my ability to remember history accurately & making it impossible to see the man who loved me despite his incredible flaws. It prevented me from understanding him, or even trying.
When I think of someone who has hurt me, whether I care deeply about them or not, I see it from a completely different perspective now. As a Christian, I’m commanded to forgive, so obviously there’s that to play into everything. But I also have the understanding of how fleeting life is, how easily breath leaves, & when I see my time here as finite, it serves to shift how I view the offenses of others.
I think of my dad, whom I had always feared & eventually despised. That fear prevented me from seeing how sad & broken he was. I couldn’t have healed him…but I could’ve loved him.
How many people need to be loved?
As a Christian, I’m commanded to love God & to love my neighbor. How can I love them if I can’t forgive them? Quite simply, I can’t.
The Bible says that I can’t love God, whom I can’t see, if I can’t love my brother, whom I can see. I can’t love my brother if I can’t forgive. Simple.
So how does one forgive? Simplest response: choose.
It is your choice. It is my choice. It is a choice.
I might need divine help in the matter, but I must still choose to seek the help I need to forgive someone. I must choose to be free from the chains my unforgiveness wraps around me. Keeping a log book of others’ sins is a choice. It’s all about choice.
No, I’m not going to give some easy formula or quick tips or whatever. I don’t have any. We all have to figure it out, & there are people out there who can help. My first recommended source is the Bible, of course, but I’m sorry to say, I can’t help you.
However, I can encourage you, & so I will. On this Fathers Day, try again. If you’ve tried every day for the past five years, try again today. If you’ve refused to acknowledge the need to forgive at all, try it, just for today. Tomorrow is another day. It has no bearing on today. Today, try again. Today, try for the first time. Today, just try.
Especially if it is a close relative, whether or not you take them back into your life, forgiveness is for you. It will set you free. It will allow you to release the angry, bitter feelings those memories cause you. Those feelings & fears which chain you & keep you from reaching for & enjoying your fullest life.
So blessings to all of you today who get to spend the day with your dads. Peace to those of you, like me, who are missing that special man, for whatever reason. And to you daddies, may your day be truly wonderful, & may you set the example of grace & forgiveness for your children now, that you may reap the benefits later.
Happy Fathers Day, Daddy. I miss you, & I love you.