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.
This week in honor of Mother’s Day, I’m writing about forgiveness as I have experienced it. I know that it’s a controversial subject for many, as evidenced in the recent comments on my Huffington Post blog article Forgiveness–A Mother’s Day Gift.
As memoirists, of course we have to take a chance and tell our truths, which means being brave about sharing what we think and feel, despite whatever winds may blow. I’m joining my colleague Darcey Rojas in writing about forgiveness, though both of us decided this without the other knowing it–but we both had complicated mothers who had to contend with mental illness. Please go over and read her thoughtful and inspiring blog too.
This piece is about my grandmother who raised me, a complex person whom I often feared, but whom I loved as a mother. She raised me, she saved me, she was with me as I grew up. I guess that’s what a mother is.
The old woman looked at me with an uncharacteristic glow, her deep brown eyes peaceful for the first time in years. For the last few years, I’d tried to escape my grandmother, her ballistic rants and thunderstorm moods, her hatred and grudges. But it’s not so easy when Gram was the only “parent” who cared enough to raise me. Still, the last sixteen years of her 8 hour a day rants—when she was in the mood–have worn me down.
Today I came to visit her in a convalescent home, after having just seen my father, who was dying of cancer of the liver. A dark cloud hung around me, the shreds of history woven by Gram and my father, a long war they’d waged for years. When I walked in the room, I decided that one word against him, and I’d walk out. I’d had enough of their hate and anger.
The history of these battles tied knots around my heart. When I was ten, Gram forced me to write hate letters to my father, and he answered in kind, letters addressed to me, letters filled with rage: damn bastard, greedy, no-good—accusations and counter accusations. I could feel a history I knew little about—he married my mother after a quick courtship, I was born 10 months later, and he was gone the first year of my life. Mother left me with her mother when I was four. Dishes were thrown when mother came to visit, vile words flung about during visits by both parents. My psyche was littered with the debris of war, sharpened knives of wounding words, saddlebags of grudges.
Today she looked so small lying there on the white sheets, her eyes soft, her voice like the Gram who used to brush my hair from my face and murmur, “You’re my Sugar Pie.” She was mother and father, best friend, advocate for reading, history, literature, foreign languages, the piano and cello, passionate about college and learning—everything she might have wanted for herself in another era.
Her slim fingers reached for my hand. “I have something important to tell you.”
The air in the room was not so dark and heavy as it used to be at home, and she appeared to be light, as in weightless, unburdened, so unlike her. What had happened to her since my last visit nearly two years ago when I ran from the house to escape her rage and hateful words?
She began telling me about her week in the Catholic hospital, St. Mary’s, how a priest would visit her, finding her weeping every day. In the last few years, she was either enraged or crying.
“He told me that he could see my troubles, and he said he could help. He prayed with me, and then he offered me the last rites of the church.”
I tried not to react, but a jolt of fear ran through me—that ritual was conducted when someone was dying. Was she dying? I knew of her deep conflicts with religion—angry when I became a Baptist, and angry later when I decided to become an Episcopalian. She would thumb through a Catholic prayer book, but she never went to church during the years she raised me. “A bunch of damn hypocrites, that’s all they are,” she’d say. I looked at her face now, serene, nearly unwrinkled as she went on with her story. She couldn’t be dying.
“My sins have been forgiven. I feel lighter.” She smiled, again the kind of smile she’d give me years ago, when we first began. She reached for my hand again., “Honey, will you please forgive me for hating your father all those years? I know he’s ill, and I’m so sorry.”
My mind stopped for a moment, shocked to hear her speak about him without rancor, even with compassion. Forgive her? I couldn’t lie to her, but her request was so unexpected, I wasn’t prepared for it. I was 25 years old, with a lifetime of unresolved stuff, a mountain of unfinished business that I imagined had been swept under a rug that reached to the ceiling. My heart was closed for self-protection. How could I trust and open to someone who had been so focused on her hate? I’d nearly given up on her, but here she was reaching out to me. I searched for a place in my heart, a corner, a small room with a window where forgiveness might be possible.
I don’t know how much time went by. It seemed that my whole history flashed in a kaleidoscope of images—the nights in high school when I cried every midnight, the welts from her yardstick, the sweetness of her hugs when I was little, her passion about WWII, England, Queen Elizabeth, Beethoven, piano music, and mostly travel, how her eyes would light up in the Nash Rambler on the road to Iowa every summer, how she loved the train, and the silver tea service, linen napkins and continental style of living. Silk dresses. Red lipstick. How she had seeded all this in me.
I found that open window—a gentle wind blew a lace curtain and the sun blessed us. Something in me melted and softened. “Gram, it’s okay. I forgive you.”
I knelt beside her, and she smiled. “Who knows, maybe I’ll even live for awhile.”
I’d not heard her be glad about living for 10 years—more than once she’d threatened to die and haunt me. But she meant it now, I could see it in her eyes, how she was lifted from her darkness. I would learn later that there’s a name for her ailment: depression-but then it was just the way things were.
Two weeks later she died on my birthday, leaving me with the blessing of being able to forgive her. Even though it was incomplete—it would take a few more decades to deal with the mountain buried under the rug—but in that moment on that day, the light in her eyes, her apology, and my acceptance was a blessing, the most profound moment of my life.