Father’s Day stirs up a memory of when my father finally reached out to offer me comfort and nurturing. But this story, like many stories about families, is bitter sweet and a lesson in forgiveness. As we recognize Father’s Day, we read the stories of wonderful parents who have strong characters and guide their children through the many obstacles of life. However, for many of us, the lessons that our parents taught us are much more complex to decipher and it can take years, if not a lifetime, to learn all that they taught us.
My father was an intelligent man who constantly read books, all kinds of books, great literature, history, poetry, trashy novels and Shakespeare. I am forever thankful for growing up in a house surrounded by words. But my father was complex man who started drinking heavily at the age of 14. His temper was violent and quickly stirred, like the thunderstorms that passed through our South Florida home during the hot summer months; dark, explosive, dangerous, and frightening.
Moving into adulthood my emotions toward him turned from disappointment and anger to pity. After having children, I thought perhaps he could have a relationship with my daughter, and I took my infant daughter to visit him and he rambled on for two hours. The next time he saw my daughter she was two years old and I was pregnant with my second child. He was working odd jobs to subsidize his cigarette and beer addictions, and he looked twenty years older than this age of 52. As he rambled on to his two year old granddaughter, I vowed that I would not expose her to him again. I stopped sending him pictures of his granddaughter, and the only news I heard of him came through my brother.
Then my brother called me one night over ten years ago to tell me that my father was dying, at age 60, of lung cancer. Two weeks later I took a last minute flight to spend time with him during his final weeks. I walked into his hospital room on my 39th birthday, and his first words to me in five years were “I’m sorry that you have to spend your birthday like this”. I spent the next two weeks at his bedside letting him ramble on in his morphine-induced state. During the first few nights, we were sure that he was at the brink of death so my brother and I took turns sleeping on the hospital bed next to his. One night I woke up and then he stirred, looked at me and said “I’ll be all right. You need to go get some rest.” It was the first time in my life that I recall my father reaching out to protect me. I felt loved.
It was not a time for deep revelations and long talks asking for forgiveness, but he repeatedly said “I’m sorry”, and I knew that we meant that he was sorry for all of the pain that he caused us. I responded with “I’m sorry too”, and without explanation, he knew that we were able to forgive each other. We shared our love for each other and felt forgiveness. After two weeks at his side, I had to return to my children with the promise that I would return in a week. I kissed his forehead as he told me “I won’t make it another week” and we said our good-byes. He died four days later.
So he ended up teaching me a wonderful lesson. A lesson about forgiveness, love and that sometimes it can take a lifetime for us to become a person who is able to give unconditional love. I am honored to have known a man who was asked to be forgiven and willing to forgive and spend his final days surrounded by love. He was an imperfect man, and when he was alive he taught me to be a survivor. In his death he taught me the power of forgiveness and love. So, like many people, I don’t have rosy images of a strong father who helped his children navigate the waters of life, but I have learned that life is complex and we should always give someone the opportunity to heal the wounds of the past.