At first I was not going to write about Father’s Day, feeling again that my story was just sad and depressing, and who wants to hear it. Sound familiar?
This is what I hear from my students all the time, especially when they’re writing a story that just doesn’t get better. The truth of our dark stories remains the truth—there’s no way to gloss it over.
Yesterday, teaching a class to a group of people who might want to write if they could give themselves permission, I felt the energy of hope and fear in the room about writing revealing dark stories—the push-pull of writing which can swirl you into the labyrinth of sorrow or anger with a couple of key strokes on the computer, or a few flourishes of your pen.
Yet, as I encouraged the group to write, to express, to take 10 minutes to capture a story, I saw their faces change—from frowning concern about writing to fleeting smiles. Even though some people had a few tears as they wrote, they were encouraged about having the freedom to write their truths.
In my work as a writing coach, I read so many stories with dark, painful moments. Some people have to grapple with such deeply dark stories, they’re afraid to put them on paper—partly out of self protection, but also because they don’t want to inflict their pain on other people.
I have felt that way often, and feel that way today. It goes like this: who wants to hear about my father, who left before I was a year old, who visited me for two days once a year for a few years, but whom I didn’t see for three years at a time as I grew older. It’s embarrassing to share that I had idealized this father for decades, so grateful for those brief visits. I also had my secrets. I put into a separate compartment the fact that he acted sexual with me on one of those visits—leaving it up to me, a virginal and protected fifteen year old girl, to realize what he was up to, and stop him from going further, which he hinted he wanted to do. In the early sixties, girls didn’t have information the way they do now, so his behavior stunned me. In shock that day, I tried to reconcile the Daddy I’d looked up to and waited for, the Daddy I’d tried to defend with my grandmother, who hated him but I never knew quite why, a Daddy whose hands roamed over me. I never told anyone until it was wrenched from me in therapy.
In my work as a therapist, I’ve helped women who also have had two versions of their abusers: the “good” one, who did offer some kind of love or connection, and the “bad” one, who was destructive to their sense of self. The bad one who had to be protected—because if and when we come to terms with that “bad” parent, we lose them forever. They are not the admired, respected parent we wanted. They are something else, shameful, to be silent about. We have to hide this from others so they won’t be wounded by the truth too.
So as I think of my father, I’m holding the two parts, and when I watch movies like “The Descendants,” about a father who learns how to be more connected to his daughters, and who trust him enough to tell him truths he doesn’t want to know, I also finally accept that my father was a biological gift, and that the missing father is a huge part of me that I’ve had to heal in other ways—by finding a fatherly therapist, and by enjoying the way my son-in-law, Frank, fathers his children, playing with them, teaching them. As I watch him hug my grand-daughter Zoe, seeing how safe she feels, seeing her full trust in him, a part of me is healed. As he teaches my grandson how to ride his bike, or when he helps him create claymation movies on the computer, I’m settled in myself in a new way, my spirit soothed to see the children blessed with a real father.
It’s easier to forgive my father for his shortcomings as I’m healed. Whatever led him to his missteps, I’ll never know for sure, but I can see now that he was simply human and flawed. It took years to stop grieving for what we never had, for his death in my twenties just as I’d started to find a voice with which to speak more honestly to him.
Today, I can celebrate fathers with a fuller heart, and some forgiveness. To remember that they were shaped by forces we may never understand. It’s a long journey to get there, but when we do, it’s a blessing.
When I read stories like yours I can only think how fortunate I was even though my loving father was absent from my life since I was ten when my mother took me half a world away. Even though the man who “replaced” him was abusive and certifiably insane. How do you forgive a father’s abuse? Even if you do, how can you ever forget it? An unwelcome burden that you must carry through life. I’m glad you can still celebrate Father’s Day. Shows what a great person you must be.
Thank you Penelope. The topic of forgiveness is of course very challenging for all of us, and who really can predict or plan if it will happen. I think it’s a process of working through the pain caused, owning it, and then seeing if there can be some way to understand that other person, and sometimes we just can’t. There is no way to have a full context or understanding of their actions. If we find forgiveness, it’s a way of letting it go for us, but only after we have dealt with the legacy of their actions. Thanks for your comments.
Linda Joy, I am always swept away by your words. The spirit of forgiveness you convey is so consoling to read. My experience of having had a loving father leaves me in awe of how you can overcome such heartbreak so bravely and find your peace and healing in watching your son-in-law father your grandchildren in a loving way. Forgiveness is so powerful and I am happy you have reached this sense of freedom so you can enjoy the blessings in your life now. Thanks for sharing.
Dear Kathy–your response is so sweet and kind–thank you so much. I love reading about your loving father in your posts–and I think it’s healing for those of us who didn’t have fathers like that to dip into the stories of those who did–which is what you offer us. Yes, I think when we are looking for it, when we are open to both the pain and the joy, that we can find healing in many circumstances. Luckily, my son-in-law and I truly love each other and value each other, so that is such a blessing too! Thank you for all you do with memoir writers!
Wow……..beautiful post that sums it up. Thank you for sharing. You are a shining example of the importance of acceptance and forgiveness in the healing process.
Thank you Janet for your comments. I feel that forgiveness is a gift, and that we get there, if we can, by dealing with our wounds, writing about them, writing stories that take us into the scenes we have lived. By writing them down, sometimes we can find a way out!
Forgiveness is a difficult thing. It’s taken me years and writing about my abusers to find it. Thank you for your inspiration and life work. Within your writings you have tucked such great lessons. Thank you.