Years ago (months or years into my first round of talk therapy) my therapist gave me an article titled, “The Power To Change The Past.” It was about the healing power of forgiveness. He then gave me a series of assignments, all of which I completed in turn, ending with me sitting in front of my then speech and otherwise disabled father, holding his hand, and telling him I forgave him. It took a while and some work to get to the point where I could say that truthfully. I did the work and I got there. It was worth the effort.
When I was able to forgive Daddy – for not being there for me my whole life – it got rid of the anger.
It did not get rid of the deep sadness. The hole in my heart where he should have been is still there. The pain from that deep place sometimes rises to the surface suddenly and unexpectedly and is new again.
It did not give me the strengths I was missing from growing up without him. These are deficits I have to live with, and I’ve learned how. Some days it’s harder than others.
Forgiveness is a salve for the forgiver – not a complete cure necessarily, but some comfort. Depending on the situation, it can be for the forgiven too, but it always is for the forgiver. If you have managed true forgiveness, you have accomplished at least some healing.
But that corrosive anger – even a feeling when I was younger that I hated him (and all men except for my brothers there for a while) – that was the worst, and I’m so glad it’s gone. I did not hate him (another thing I figured out in therapy.) I loved him and missed him, ached from the lack of him. There must have been some connection when I was a baby and up until about age 4 that I couldn’t remember consciously, but that I felt the loss of when he drifted away in his pain. Daddy was never mean or abusive to me in any way. He was just not there most of the time, and not connected when he was.
Everyone in our town knew my father. Not everyone knew he had a daughter. I knew who my father was. But I didn’t have a father. Not really. So many people knew him so much better than I did. He was a founding member of The Aztec Saddle club – a horse riding club in our town – and I had to go to my friend’s house to ride a horse! So yeah. I was angry. Hated him (I thought) for not being there for me. These went away – the anger and what I perceived as hate – when I forgave him and told him so. I’m very glad to have freed myself from those.
It helped me to be able to forgive when I finally realized/believed what my dear Aunt Clokie, his sister, told me. He did love me, she said, but he was sick. The person she knew him to be – her sweet brother she adored and called by his first name, William – would have chosen differently if he could have. He just wasn’t able. By the time I showed up on earth, he was 37 and had been, for many years already, self-medicating with alcohol to cope with pain he could not otherwise tolerate – the emotional aftereffects of WWII, early loss of his mother, and who knows what other painful things he’d experienced that I never knew about. From my wee tiny years, all I could see was the result of the alcoholism at my house, and the contrast between that and the sweet, happy, seeming to me perfect fathers at my friends’ houses. This was a constant source of pain for me.
And it was the reason for my poor choices with other men in my life. I had a good role model for myself as a woman – a silently heartbroken and overburdened woman, but a good one who was devoted to us, was always there, and created a pocket of stability for us in the chaos. So my brothers had the foundation of a loving, secure connection with a woman from which to seek and build future relationships with the opposite sex. I did not have this foundation. What I had instead was an all-encompassing hunger, DESPERATION to finally feel what it was like to be loved, valued, and protected by a man. This desperation rendered my young brain incapable of making good decisions, or making any decisions at all really. I was just a walking nerve, with no boundaries, seeking comfort and safety. That’s where it started. And it ended with this decades long trail of failure and heartbreak which I now stand at the end of, alone.
Daddy did attempt to show or speak his love, in his way, during rare coherent moments when I was nearing young adulthood. My mental response then was basically, “Whatever. Too Little Too Late.” But I have more grace for him now. I believe now that he saw my pain, felt regret, and wished for a do-over. He would have done better if he could have.
When I held his hand and told him I forgave him, he appeared to understand everything I said and seemed happy, relieved. He could not speak well, or much at all, by that point, but his facial expression and tears communicated. He listened, looked me in the eye with some tears in his, and then hugged me.
But after a good bit of time had gone by – months after the day when I sat with him and told him I forgave him – there came a day when he responded. He pointedly looked me in the eye and said very slowly, each syllable an effort, but very clearly, “I’m sorry.”
He said it as my head drew near his when I placed in his arms my newborn son I had named after him – after the man my Aunt Clokie knew. William.