Thursday, December 31, 2009
I'm Not Who I Was
I thought you'd never ask.
Or rather, I'd given up on you asking. See, I had waited and waited and waited until the hope of explaining had faded from need and into that quiet, still place where hope never dies, but no longer need to be fanned to stay alive.
You asked: "How did you forgive me?" and "Why did you reach out, and keep trying?" And I've got a good answer for all of it. But first, we have to go back to ... well, before you even left us.
By all standards, there was a lot to forgive. You admit yourself that parenting wasn't something you'd ever really aspired to, nor was it something that you saw as having much place in your busy, grown-up world. You had a life outside of the four walls of our home, and that was where you poured your love, your energy, and your passion. From the very beginning--as beguiled as you were by my pigtails and adoration of you--that place, that other, was your world. I never doubted that the time you gave to me was precious; It came in fits and starts, and was as dependable as the next phone call that would drag you away from the card game, the dance recital, the roughhousing in the pool. I don't remember you ever apologizing for the depth of your commitment to your job or your lack of commitment to your family. It was a foregone conclusion--to you, to us--that work came first. You were never ashamed of that, and so I grew to be ashamed of wanting you so badly, of daring to try and imagine a time when I would rank higher than the company that you ran with such diligence and care.
And then, of course, there was the drinking. You came from a long line of men who could hold their likker, and I doubt you ever thought twice about your nightly stop at "your bar." Amazing, isn't it, that three full generations on, you found and claimed your own local, just as Poppy's father had done back before he's watched his son take the boat from Ireland to the promise of America?
Your drinking was not of the savoring, social kind. It was in quantity, and not without ill effect. More than once my mother and I woke up to a crashed car in the driveway of our beautiful suburban home and tried to explain away for the polite folk how a man of such standing had managed to wreck his own car, make his way home, and pass out on the couch without feeling the need to tell a soul.
There was the fighting, too. The yelling, the slamming of doors, the throwing of objects. I can still tell you the exact volume level that a Red Wings game must be blasted at in order to cover the terrors of parents verbally assaulting one another on the other side of a wall: 18. I can also tell you that baby brothers accustomed to such ruckus will not awaken from sleep until their big sisters drown out the worst of the screaming with Henry Rollins' yells pumping from stereo speakers.
I will not go into the adultery or the acts of infidelity that you placed center stage in your marriage. We both know it's there, and we live with the shadow of its effects.
There was much to be forgiven from the beginning. Your leaving was, really, just lemon juice in a festering wound. Instead of wondering if you wanted to be with us at all, the answer was thrust into our faces: no, you did not want to stay.
You did not want to stay, so you left.
You left, and you took it all. You took our financial safety net, our ability to stay in the only home we had ever known, and the last shreds of my mother's mental stability.
You left, and you didn't look back. Years and years of black screen, as your absence spoke volumes over my most defining years. You missed it. All of it. The dances, the boyfriends, the college visits, mom's faltering grip on reality, my hatred for you, my young womanhood.
A lot to forgive.
But I have. Utterly, and completely. You know this. That stuff I mentioned? It's history--the back story of me, the pieces of the puzzle that come together like so many jagged edges to produce the person you see in front of you today. I recite them with no passion, no anger, no hurt. It is what happened. Bíodh sé amhlaidh.
Which bring us to the second question. Why did I then turn to you and seek to establish a relationship at all?
Clearly, you hadn't proven yourself very worthy of my love or trust. I'll be honest with you: friends and relatives have warned me (and will continue to warn me, I'm sure) of what an awful, heartless bastard you are. Of how you don't deserve my love. How the gift of even hearing about your grandchildren is too much of a reward for such a selfish life. How you need to reap what you've sewn: namely, loneliness and bitterness.
If I had a dime for every single mother fighting to raise her kids without the benefit of a father who has told me that I am wrong to offer friendship to you after the way you left, the lack of communication, the total absence and lack of interest in my life, well ... I'd be rich.
But I'd be no better off. And here's why. Please, listen closely, because I'm finally, after all that, getting around to answering your question:
I am not only your child. I am a child of the most high God. And as much as I have forgiven you, Dad ... He has forgiven me that much more.
I was no easy child, and I know it. Anything and everything that a child could get into, I did. And I don't just mean the small stuff, like dumping a tin of flour all over the kitchen floor. The big stuff. The heartbreaking stuff. Like the night when I was 15 years old and tried to run away by stealing your precious convertible, and ended up slamming it into the side of the house. No small potatoes. I remember the look on your face like it was yesterday; I wondered at the time if you'd ever look into my eyes again. I was horrified at myself, at you, at my mother. I channeled that horror into my big act of teen rebellion. And I meant it. At the time, I was glad that it hurt you.
Even that, though, has been forgiven. Not just by you (I know because you've told me) but by the One who bore the ultimate price for my pettiness, my ugliness, and my sinful self-worship mixed with self-loathing.
Five years ago now, I felt God speak to my heart about you. You and I had resumed a casual relationship of sorts after years of virtually no contact. Phone calls once every three months or so. The occasional picture mailed your way highlighting my growing babies. But as I sat thinking over a passage of scripture, you came to mind. And I knew what God was asking. He wanted me to open my life to you, and to allow you to taste something not filled with the bitterness and coldness that you deserved, but bursting with the warmth and love that Jesus has poured out on me despite the fact that I didn't deserve it, either.
I didn't want to do it, really. I mean, I knew I would--I've read about Noah, and had no intention of running away from Ninevah--but I was certain that it would be a simple exercise in obedience. "I will do as you say, God, because to not do it is worse than the discomfort I will have in trying."
So I decided to start writing you letters. At first, they were stiff and cordial. Do you remember those letters? How I couldn't use the nicknames of the children for fear that you wouldn't know who I was talking about? How I had so many blanks to fill in, like my husband's job, and what kind of a house we lived in? I searched and searched for minutiae to fill those letters. "I am going to bake Christmas cookies this week." "Our dog is growing so fast!" "I painted in my dining room." I sent those details faithfully, once per week.
I heard nothing from you. After three months, I began to get angry. All of my feelings of abandonment, all of my hurt, all of my desire to protect my kids from your sin and deserting resurfaced. It was nearly impossible to write those letters when my heart was so hard.
And then ... a miracle.
I let go.
All of it. It just ... slipped away, like a dirty sheet being stripped form a bed.
Underneath were the good memories. Trips to Dairy Queen, just me and you. You hoisting me on your shoulder as we walked into your office. My pride at riding shotgun in your fiery red pickup. The way you sang "Jackson" at the top of your lungs in the shower. Your hug at my 8th grade graduation, where you told me that I was both brilliant and beautiful. With the skin of anger pulled back, I could see the good bits again.
Delighted though I was with the changes in me, I couldn't wait to see what God's big plan was for this new-found connection. I wrote my letters diligently, still not hearing back from you. I waited, sure that soon, you'd send a card or call, letting me know that not only were you grateful to hear from me, but that you, too, had come to know Christ.
But it didn't happen. Instead, that year at Christmas, you sent my children gifts for the first time. I waited, holding my breath. You called once. I waited some more. The letters kept coming, always from Washington to Kentucky. You sent a birthday card for Atticus, then Logan. I wrote some more. And on and on.
Three years ago, we met for a one evening overlap in your favorite vacation spot. It was the first time you'd met Logan. We had just one evening to spend together, and I wondered how it would be--you and your wife meeting up with my family. Would it be awkward? Would we argue? Would there be anything to say at all?
Instead, that was the night I saw you pull 9 year-old Jo onto your lap, and tear up as you examined her freckled, sweet face. You grabbed my hand too tightly and whispered, with a hoarse voice: "She's so beautiful. She's you all over again."
Months later, you sent a note written on office stationary. It said, simply, "Thank you for sharing so freely what I've missed. Love, Dad."
It was so little, when my overtures had been so numerous and so grand. Still, it was what you offered, and I took it to heart.
And then, finally ... five years into my weekly letters. Five years into my calls and my photos, my love for you having finally (finally!) blossomed and soared past obligation and into true intimacy ...
You told me when I visited that you loved me. That you were so sorry for all that you had missed. That you would have never reached out to me, because you knew that the wrong you had done was too much to ask forgiveness over. We cried and hugged, and it was a beautiful night. You told me how proud you were of me, and how you are enriched through my love for you.
But still, you didn't ask why.
So, today, Dad, I am telling you. I have forgiven you because I was forgiven. I love you because I was first loved. And I kept reaching, even when it seemed like there was no purpose in going on, because I was sought after and rescued by the God who seeks after you, too.
I give thanks every day that I have healing in my heart where once there was nothing but an empty, throbbing cavity. I give thanks that when people talk about their fathers, I think not of the Dad who abandoned me in my youth, but of the one who tells me he wishes I lived closer. A man, yes. Mortal and fallible and bound to disappoint. But once, I had nothing. You were given back to me by my Heavenly Father, and for that, I will give praise. And if somehow, some small way, my offerings of love and letters and access to my children can be transformed into you coming even one step closer to knowing the full power of that Father's love, I am honored.
So thank you for asking. Thank you for being grateful for my forgiveness. But keep looking, Daddy. Because the open hand I have offered you is a mustard seed compared to the wide, green spaces and unbearable lightness that is the forgiveness of Christ. As much as your daughter loves you, He loves you more.