21 Years On, Forgiveness is Still a Bugger (though it’s less hard)

This is a story about me (but it’s not just about me). It is for anyone who has ever struggled with forgiveness…

My father was the kind of guy who used a shopping cart at the liquor store. I say ‘was’ because he is dead.

12 December, 2000, was the day my father died at the age of 53. That was the day his lungs stopped functioning. He had no more thoughts, no heartbeat, no pulse. It was lights out. Game over.

But really, I had lost my father long before that. I’d had a Tony Soprano, ‘You’re dead to me,’ kind of attitude towards him for years.  It was his addiction that inflamed me, the fact that his priorities were bottle-shaped.

The anger that was a brushfire in my teenage years mellowed into a smoldering long-term resentment. God, I was angry about his sternness. What an epic jerk. What a loser. I loathed him for pushing me relentlessly to achieve, and for shaming me relentlessly when I didn’t.  I was mad – hornet mad – that he wouldn’t control his addiction that was killing our family.  And don’t get me started about the embarrassment.  We couldn’t take the guy anywhere.

But my disapproval never stopped him from stowing whisky bottles in the filing cabinet or in the garage. They were behind the curtains and in the kitchen cupboards too.

Weak, despicably weak – that’s what I used to think, pursing my lips like a cat’s bum. I remember those crisp, righteous judgments that felt so binary.  I’m right, and you’re wrong, Mister. YOU are responsible for this whole heinous mess.

For years, this is how I thought of him.

Even now, I can see him stumbling down the corridor, large steps and tiny steps, his silhouette swaying side to side like a great ship.

For twenty one years, his bones have been in the earth.  In that time, my anger became numbness, and even that is shape-shifting into something softer and more malleable now.  The fist in my sternum isn’t clenched quite as tightly. I’ve stopped keeping tally of all his failures on the yellow legal pad in my mind.

Has forgiveness been an elegant process, you ask, like the gentle opening of a flower?

Did I cut him some slack since he’s dead and all? ‘Dead as a doornail,’ as my grandma used to say.

(Insert record scratch sound).


I kept right on crusading.

One of our childhood neighbors used to have a sign in her kitchen that read, ‘Bless this mess.’

It’s only recently that I’m discovering that forgiveness is more like that – blessing the mess.

My kids sometimes ask questions about my father. So I breathe deeply, allowing my memory to unspool, pausing at the highlight reel of happy moments from my childhood. Fetching Christmas trees on skis from the forest. Watching the northern lights, bundled up, laying on our backs on a freezing winter’s night. Swimming at the lake. Blowing dandelion tufts into the wind.

My children listen with interest, and then, in that matter-of-fact way that kids have, my daughter says: ‘Your dad is dead.’

Then it kinda hits me.

My father doesn’t get to be here anymore. He doesn’t get to know my wonderful children with their foibles and hugs and funny ways. He doesn’t get to see how we grew up, my brothers and I, because he checked out.

It’s not that he wanted to depart. He was simply living his own truth, responding to his own memories and experiences in the way that felt right for him.  I didn’t agree with it (I still don’t). But he was living his truth, just like I am intuiting and living my own.  We all are.

Seeing my father as a human being, not as a super villain who did something purposely ‘to me,’ has been an important step.

I can’t say if it’s age or the passing of time, but resentment no longer makes me feel superior, or even comforted in the weird sort of way it once did.  I don’t need that armour anymore.

And honestly, what is the point of being ‘right’ when the other party has left the party?

So what if I stopped making my father wrong? What would be possible then? Resentment is, after all, just a habit.  I can think of better ones.

Iyanla Vanzant says, ‘If someone has offended you, insulted you, or disappointed you, LET IT GO! If you are remembering all the ways you have been hurt, or forgotten, let it go! Ask yourself, what good does it do for me to hold onto this?

My best self knows the folly of holding old resentment. It’s like clutching a handful of broken glass.

That mess of ill-expressed love, sternness and overzealous ambition was my father, and I love him. I can’t remember when I last said that. Maybe never. I can love him now because it’s not so difficult to like him anymore.

Rumi wrote, ‘Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’

What I lost on 12 December, twenty one years ago, was hope. Maybe that’s what made me so angry for so long – that my father chose to give up; that he seemed to choose whisky over us.

What I’m choosing to lose today (and tomorrow, and the next day), is my resentment. That, and the disappointment of all my weighty expectations.  I am a 50 year old woman now.  The past is so over. One lesson that is surfacing for me is that I cannot be at my best, not really, if I’m schlepping around all that pointless baggage. I long to travel lighter in this lifetime.

But forgiveness is a fickle thing. That’s actually a polite way of saying it’s a bugger. Just when you think you’re done, an old blame-soaked thought broadsides you on a Tuesday afternoon. In my experience forgiveness is more like a daily practice. I’m not yet sure if I’ll ever be done with this mess.

I do know this, though: when the old stories rise up, I head to Rumi’s field in my mind. There I lie on my back, looking up at the expanse of blue sky. And I let them go one by one, those old resentful thoughts, like tufts of dandelion on the wind. I am learning.  Little by little, I am learning.