How do we forgive our Fathers?
Maybe in a dream
Do we forgive our Fathers for leaving us too often or forever
when we were little?
Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage
or making us nervous
because there never seemed to be any rage there at all.
Do we forgive our Fathers for marrying or not marrying our Mothers?
For Divorcing or not divorcing our Mothers?
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning
for shutting doors
for speaking through walls
or never speaking
or never being silent?
Do we forgive our Fathers in our age or in theirs
or their deaths
saying it to them or not saying it?
If we forgive our Fathers what is left?
* This poem is by Dick Laurie and is read during the last scene of Smoke Signals. It was originally published in a longer version titled “Forgiving Our Fathers” in a book of poems called Ghost Radio.
If we forgive our fathers, what is left?
I want to spend some time answering that because I’m starting to think it might be my greatest fear disguised in a question. The question begs me to reflect on facts that have taken me many years to even face. Maybe it’s rhetorical, but I have a feeling he left it unanswered for the reader. His answer would not be the same as mine. And he would be doing me a disservice if he didn’t force me to face the answer for myself. Myself, myself. Yes, I am writing this for myself, but I know so much of it will resonate with other people. On a day that’s difficult for many, dealing with situations like those mentioned in the poem, I need to wrestle with my own father and what our story means for me.
I’ve written about my dad some before, so I won’t try to delve into who he was, because shit…I’ll never understand him completely. To be brief, I had a distant father–physically and emotionally. He was a surgeon and he worked a lot. Too much. He was emotionally intense, but in ways that felt both isolating and wonderful (sometimes in the span of five minutes). He was either on or off. He left when I was six, and from then on out, it felt like a constant game of getting back to him. When we had moments of connection, they were deep; but the next minute, they were overshadowed by his sometimes unexpected rage and coldness. I grew up walking on eggshells, trying so depesperately to be pleasing one minute, and feeling angry and resentful the next. He was unpredictable and always living in his own head. He was a man living with alcoholism, shame, anger, and a myriad of other things I’m sure I’ll never know or understand. He’s not here for me to ask. But I have a feeling I would have never gotten the answers I wanted. I’m coming to realize that’s okay. It’s a limp you learn to walk with.
Cheryl Strayed says, “You get the father you get.” When you’re born, your father is still the broken human he was two seconds before you entered the world. Only now, he’s got the pressure of another human life in his hands. If he wasn’t emotionally equipped to be a good father before you were born, odds are he’s not going to magically transform the first time he gazes into your baby blues. I don’t think this is depressing. I think it’s liberating. He loved me deeply, but who he was had an effect on me. I lived for years feeling victim to that because I didn’t see his humanness. His humanness set me free.
He fucked up (early and often), and five years ago, his life ended suddenly because of decisions he played a vital role in making. He let his four children down in the biggest way I can imagine. That fact gets suck like peanut butter on the roof of my mouth. It lingers no matter how much I try to tongue it away. Anger, my friends, is a fantastic way to push down grief.
So what happens when I forgive him?
When I forgive my father, and let the cool waters of love wash away the stale aftertaste of resentment, what’s left is compassion and empathy. Plain and simple.
The bitter side of this is that it makes me miss him more. Or rather, it makes me miss what we could of been if he had taken the steps to healing as well.
What I desire so deeply is to be able to ask him to explain. I wish I could sit down with him and demand for him to, in complete honesty, try to explain why he was the way he was. I realize this is too much to ask. Maybe not even why he was the way he was, but why he did such shitty things. I have no capacity for eloquence here. He pissed me off and made me laugh more deeply than anyone ever will again. I adored my father. I hated my father.
The love/hate emotion of it, which gives me some illusion of connection, is what I’m losing when I forgive my father. The emotion gives me control and one last ember to blow on. One last person to blame for my own struggles and shortcomings. When I take the emotion out of it, and feel what’s lurking beneath, it overwhelms. It’s deep longing for a father who never was. It’s a deep desire to understand a man I didn’t have enough time to get to know. It’s deep sadness that I can’t taste his banana pancakes and laugh until I’m sore at his storytelling ability.
I think I’ve been afraid that when I forgive my father, I’ll lose him a second time. That I’ll be left with nothing.
Instead, I’m finding that every time I forgive my father, I meet him in a different way. I’ll never stop meeting him in dreams, on random Tuesdays, in songs he loved, and movies he sobbed over. He’s in every ocean because his ashes are now a part of the earth and his spirit is now speaking through every experience where I’m brave enough to listen for it. Every time I have enough courage and resilience to let love speak louder than fear, I’m set free. This is the great work of my life. Letting go–over and over and over again.