Forgiving My Father

“Dad is really sick. They put him in intensive care and we’re all worried about him,” my brother Mark said on the phone. “We’re flying out to see him this weekend—are you gonna come?” We’d all known for some time that Dad’s health wasn’t the greatest, but this seemed more serious. Mark sounded anxious, like this might be the last time we’d see our father.

I was quiet for a few seconds and then said, “I don’t know. I need to think about it.”

Later that day, both my sisters called, asking if I was going to fly out to see Dad in the hospital because they were really concerned about him. I gave them the same answer— “I don’t know. They didn’t understand why I seemed so hesitant and unaffected. I didn’t understand it either.

I thought I had worked through my confusion, hurt and anger over my dad’s choice to divorce my mom and leave us when I was 14 years old. I thought I had forgiven him for refusing to send child support and making us live on food stamps while he enjoyed a life of travel, entertainment and fine food. I thought I’d forgiven him for the subtle messages that his choices over the years conveyed: “You are interfering with my happiness and hindering my self-fulfillment. You kids are a burden. I’ll be happier without you.”

I thought I had released all my anger years ago when I became a Christian and learned that I needed to forgive everyone in my life. But somehow my dad’s serious, perhaps fatal illness was bringing old wounds and unresolved anger to the surface all over again. I wrote in my journal, “I refuse to go see him. He’s getting a good scare from this illness and now he wants all his children, whom he abandoned and neglected for years, to run to his side and comfort him with loving words. I’m not sure I have any left for him. He wants to know that we would miss him if he were gone. I’m not sure I can say that.”

I continued, “To me, he died years ago when he left us. And each time he forgot or neglected us, he died a little more. And that’s why I can’t feel alarmed by his illness or a sense of loss if he is, in fact, dying—I’ve already mourned the loss of my father. I have nothing left to feel for him.”

As I wrote out these raw emotions, I felt that God was saying something to me. He was urging me to go visit my dad, and tell him about it all—the hurt, confusion, loss and anger. Of course, I didn’t want to do it. I knew he would just become defensive and rationalize his actions, and I would feel worse than ever. But I decided that even if that were the case, at least I would have the satisfaction of saying everything that was on my mind. I flew out to see him that weekend.

Intensive Care

When I got to the hospital, I braced myself and went into the ICU room. He was in much worse shape than I expected. The nurse said he had almost died four times since being brought into the hospital. I pulled aside the curtain and said, “Hi, Dad.” He burst into tears the second he saw me. He reached out his arms and I came closer. He thanked me for coming and hugged me to his chest, and then he looked at me with a deep, searching stare. His eyes seemed to be looking at all the painful regrets of the past. He shook his head slowly and said, “I’m sorry—I wasn’t a good father. I didn’t do a good job. I’m sorry.” I felt tears welling in my own eyes. He held my face with his hands, as if I were a little boy again, and he stared and wept some more. His face seemed to say, “What have I done? How could I lose you? I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

When I left the hospital that night, I felt a sense of relief. I had waited almost twenty years to hear him acknowledge the pain of his choices, without making excuses or blaming anyone else. I was already glad I had trusted the Voice that told me to go see my dad.

The next day, Mark and I went back to the hospital. I still needed to tell Dad why I had been angry at him for so long. I asked him to explain why he was sorry and why he thought he had been a bad father. I needed to know that he wasn’t just saying it because he was in a vulnerable situation, or because he was feeling emotional.

That morning, I told him everything I had felt and everything I couldn’t feel for him anymore. He did the most amazing thing. He listened, without contradicting me, and he owned up to the things he had done. After a few hours, we had an understanding of each other that we’d never had before. I told him that all I ever wanted was for him to be there for us, and that the reason I was so hurt and angry was because he was irreplaceable—there was no one that has ever been able to take his place. We both cried. It was fantastic.

The Road to Healing

When I flew home, I realized what a gift my dad and I had just received. God urged me to reconcile with my dad, and I believe he helped my dad take responsibility for the past. We were being healed in some deep ways. I felt so thankful to have a loving Father who leads me in life like this. I went back to see my dad several more times that summer before he died. It became harder and harder to see him suffer week after week in his lonely room. And I was grateful for the fact that I now cared enough to hurt.

On one of my visits, I told Dad that there was a story in the Bible about a father and son who were separated from each other and then the son realized it was time to come home, make things right, and they were reconciled. The father said, “My son, who was dead, has come alive again—he was lost, but now he’s found.” I said, “I feel like we are having our own reunion. We were dead and lost to each other, but now we have each other back.”

At Dad’s funeral I told the story of how God had given us reconciliation. “And,” I added, “I believe God the Father wants to have this kind of reunion with all of us.”

--Shawn Young

(from Student Leadership Journal)