Forgiveness. We’re all great at spouting off about the importance of forgiving, not living in or being victimized by the past, moving forward. And I don’t mean this blog post to be a maudlin attempt at confessionalism, or pseudo-therapy, or whawhawha self-pity. I just know there are gazillions of folks like me (some of whom I know, love, and maybe gave birth to), carrying around their boatload of anger, and I’d like for them not to wait half a lifetime (like I did) to learn why forgiveness is a CHOICE and an essential act of SELF-love
I’m pretty good about forgiving people. I always try to see the good in people. I always try to consider the scars they might be hiding. I don’t stay mad. I don’t hold grudges. Well, except for one…
My dad was born on the Ides of March. Maybe in some karmic vision of the Universe, that explains why I’ve always felt betrayed by him. He left my mom (got booted out?) with my three brothers and me, ages 5, 10, 12, and 14, at home. Although he had a decent job with the police department, he paid ZERO alimony or child support. EVER. And even though he lived in the same city, he didn’t call, come to see us, or remember birthdays/holidays. My grandma (with whom we all moved in after Dad left) tended to us kids while Mom worked two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet. And when we grew up and started having kids of our own (his grandkids), he often couldn’t remember their names. My youngest son once called him “that guy named Grandpa.”
I’m admitting now that for DECADES, I seethed. I wrote angsty, hateful poems about him. I made it a point—a mission—to ignore him. I said I couldn’t care less about him. I blamed him for my failed relationships. All men were him. I considered myself somehow unformed or incomplete because of him.
Some idealistic part of me desperately loved him, too, and betrayal is compounded, complicated, by love. My answer was to “live” with his betrayal, to keep it close. I carried it around as a testament to my pesky love for him & to my own survival. His betrayal was my trophy—my really heavy, completely useless trophy.
Recently (duh) I figured out that I have colored, shaped, molded with resentment the decades since my dad left us, and that I had only succeeded in punishing myself. My dad certainly hadn’t been paying attention. My mistakes (plenty of them) were not his fault—they were the result of my own idiocy. My bitterness hurt me, not him. My anger was a little pin with which I stuck myself over and over, so I could be wounded—stay wounded—like everyone else, maybe more than everyone else, because I was so utterly fatherless.
One day (in the process of writing a poem), it hit me that for whatever reason, my dad couldn’t be a father—maybe he didn’t like it, he didn’t know how, he didn’t learn it from his own father, he was too narcissistic, he was too disappointed in his life, he didn’t have a sense of himself, he had a wife and three kids by the time he was 30, he was betrayed himself as a child, whatEVer—the reasons don’t matter. What matters is that I finally understood it had always been MY choice to carry around that ridiculous trophy.
So this week, I called my dad to wish him a happy birthday. I didn’t have to grit my teeth. I didn’t try to get in just one nasty jab. I was actually happy to hear his voice.
I feel liberated to finally wish my dad well. I hope he’s happy and at peace with his life. I’m sad that he CHOSE to miss my life, that he’s missing my kids’ lives and their kids’ lives. I’m sad at how much richer and sweeter his life could have been if we’d all have been part of it. I’m sad that it took me so long to kick myself in the arse (my dad just turned 83). But I won’t carry around that sadness, either. I’m letting myself off the hook. I’m steam-rolling that damned trophy. I’m CHOOSING to forgive my dad. And I forgive him unconditionally—no strings attached (otherwise, it doesn’t really work). He doesn’t have to ask for it (and he never would, although ironically, he’s a strident born-again Christian now, who believes Jesus cured him of prostate cancer). He doesn’t have to want it, deserve it, or feel he needs it. Because really, it isn’t about him at all—it’s about me. That may seem selfish, but it isn’t. It’s self-compassion.
When I say we should all stop talking about forgiveness and practice it, that we should LET IT GO right now, I know from whence I speak. Theologian Lewis Smedes said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” That’s me…paroled at last, blinking in the sunlight, and breathing in the fresh air.
The poem that flipped the switch…
LETTER TO MY FATHER
It’s four in the morning,
my skin warm against my husband’s back
where I curve along his spine,
his breathing a chant.
I waited a few paltry decades for you,
this hole blasted in me
where your name echoed
in perfect rhythm with my beating heart.
You wouldn’t believe the things
I’ve stuffed in there to muffle that sound—
bits of strung-out boys,
ancient incantations for the dead,
a shell-shocked drug dealer,
bark from a weeping willow,
apologies scribbled in crayon.
Do you know how many times
I peeled back my skin
to show you the color of my blood,
the way my lungs held air?
Late nights, drunk or stoned,
I’d sleep with my ear pressed
to the steel tracks, waiting for a sign
you were coming back
to say something.
Then one day you turned
in a stab of memory and I saw it—
the hole blasted in you.
We were only
what you stuffed in there,
temporary, all those awkward teenage angles,
never enough to fill you up
or muffle your own dark names.
It’s quiet now.
Only a man’s breathing—
that prayer, that song.
© Marcella Remund