Forgiving Our Fathers

I sent my dad a Father’s Day card about 15 years ago that had a photograph of a little girl walking hand in hand with her dad on the front. Inside it read, “I miss having your hand to hold.”  Cute, sweet, sentimental.

But at the time I mailed that card, I hadn’t spoken to my dad in over five years. We became estranged over a period of a decade when he left my mother after 42 years of marriage. During the ensuing divorce proceedings, I learned what my mother had suspected for quite some time - that he had become involved with another woman, they had fallen in love, and were embarking on a new life together. 

I was 34 years old when this happened. I had a solid marriage, a 10 year old son. At first I was in shock. Then denial. Followed by devastation and depression. And anger. So much anger. I felt betrayed, abandoned, worthless. I was the girl who grew up as the apple of her daddy’s eye, and now he had tossed me to the side of the road like no more than the forgotten core. 

My dad moved to Florida and eventually I heard he had remarried. What little contact we had  began to drift away until eventually we lost touch completely.  My son grew up, graduated high school, left home. I was working, first one job, then another. Life went on as life does.

Until one day, a friend’s mother died unexpectedly. She hadn’t been close to her mother, in fact, hadn’t seen her for some time. Knowing my situation with my dad, she mentioned that I might want to reach out to him. “I wish now that I had made that effort with my mother,” she admitted.

Her words nudged me in a direction I had already been traveling.  My nature is to forgive, to be easy on people and their faults. For me to carry a grudge so long was taking a toll emotionally and physically. I was sick a lot in those days, and so thin I had taken to buying some of my clothes in the girls department because even size 0 and 2 didn’t fit. Which brings us to the Father’s Day card with the little girl and her dad on the cover. I bought it, wrote something on the inside, and mailed it.

Within just a few days, my dad called me on the phone. We talked for over and hour and met when he was in Michigan later that summer. When he walked in my front door and wrapped his arms around me, I literally felt a huge weight lift from my heart. It was as if I had been barely breathing for years, and now I could fill my lungs with oxygen. 

I’m 61 years old now, which is just about the age my dad was when he embarked up his “third act." With age has come a deeper understanding of what happened to him, the forces that compelled his decisions. I’m not the privileged, naive young woman I was in 1989, the one who thought her parents were perfectly devoted only to her happiness. Instead, I’m one who has made her own mistakes, who wishes she had done some things differently, or not done them at all.

In The Kite Runner, novelist Khaled Hossenni writes, “I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.” At some point during those long and painful years when my father and I didn’t speak, my pain had gathered its things and slipped away in the middle of the night. Were my dad and I ever as close as we once had been? No. There was residual damage in our relationship that couldn’t be overcome. Did I still love him and care about him? Of course.

Do I miss him now that he’s gone? Absolutely.

The fact is, we all make mistakes, we all do things that hurt the people we love. I know my behavior hurt my dad during those years, just as he had hurt me.  "The hard truth is that all people love poorly,” writes philosopher Henri Nouwen. "We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.” 

Among the human family, and among our individual families as well. I have been forever grateful to the friend who encouraged me to reach out to my dad those years ago. Thanks to her, we spent the last few years of his life communicating and visiting regularly.  Thanks to her, I came to know and appreciate the love and care my dad’s new wife gave him during their years together. 

Maybe that’s a gift you can give yourself or your own father today.

Or tuck it away in a drawer -you never know, you might need it some day in the future.