The Last Gift

My father dying has hit me much harder than I would have thought it would. I loved him. But that never mattered. He wasn’t the fairy tale dad from TV or books. He was cruel and brutal – for nearly the entire time I knew him. But here I sit today and I’m broken up by his passing. Seeing him diminished at Christmas gave me no pleasure. Perhaps that’s more a reflection on me as a person, than him as a man.

As a child he kicked me as I played on the living room floor. He called me ‘stupid’ and ‘dummy’ and mocked me when he found me utterly ridiculous. I wasn’t alone. He showed no kindness to any of his children. After I took a test in school to identify genius kids, they put me in a special room with 4 other children to ‘maximize our potential.’ They all attended Harvard, Columbia or Stanford. I did not. My older sister told me they were shocked I was actually smart because they all assumed I was an idiot.

‘We always thought you were slow. You were so happy-go-lucky as a kid. I mean who could be happy here?’ she told me.

But there is a beauty in growing up in such darkness. It makes it so much easier to find the light. And I’ve always looked for the light. Hope was forever my friend growing up.

I remember as a kid, at 10 years old, walking the ‘March of Dimes’ charity walk in Portland with my best friend, Karen, to raise money for crippled children. Her Dad met us at every check point over the 20 miles and had water and snacks for us. I couldn’t believe a father would care enough to do something like that. Show his child kindness. Like an alien landed on earth.

My Dad was a 95% – 5% person. 95% brutal and 5% unexpectedly kind. And the 5% didn’t show up until I was an adult. I remember when my son was a year old, I was going through a terrible divorce and I was hanging by the very last thread of a very long rope. I was completely broken and while visiting their house with my young son, I broke down. My Dad took me into his office, shut the door, and told me to sit down.

‘Listen, kid.’ he said. ‘Don’t listen to anyone else. You listen to yourself and find happiness. None of these assholes know what that is.’

I was speechless. This man who had never shown me a moment’s care suddenly had the words I needed to hear. Right at the moment of my deepest despair, the person I couldn’t possibly expect to help me did. I had no words.

At our wedding, I walked down the stairs at my friend, Curt’s house. I was holding my son, Nicholas’ little 5 year old hand getting ready to marry my best friend. And at the bottom of the stairs, there was my Dad. I was shocked. He offered me his arm and he walked with us the rest of the way. As I put my arm through his, he leaned over and said ‘I’m proud of you, kid.’ It was like he had socked me in the stomach. I couldn’t breathe, and I struggled to keep it together walking the path down to the rose garden. He had never said that to me before.

Jeff has been patient with me as I’ve gone through the grieving process. Today, he walked with me for hours in the rain. He didn’t ask me to explain, he just walked beside me in silence as I cried and held my hand. And it was Northwest rain. Not mamby-pamby drizzle. Even heaven was crying on me. I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful person to walk beside me through life. I’ve always known he married me against his family’s wishes. They’ve never liked me. I was divorced, with a child, after all. I wasn’t Catholic and I’ve always been a little outspoken. OK. Maybe more than a little. I was sort of used goods from the marriage fire sale. But, through thick and thin, Jeff has stood by me.

The final few weeks my Dad hallucinated. The hospice people said that’s normal as people venture to the end. He saw people crowded in his room and, although not religious, he talked about Jesus and God, a lot. I hope his Mom and family are waiting for him, where ever he’s going.

The other day I was taking a walk and I heard church bells ringing. I’d been walking for a while and I decided to go in to the church and sit down. I’ve never been religious but I find churches move me. I looked up at the alter and said a prayer for my Dad. And then one for myself. I didn’t really know what to ask for. ‘Help’ is all I could think of. I figure if there is a God, She’ll know what that means, even if I don’t. She’s heard me ask for it more times than either of us can count.

And then I decided that I would do one more thing. I decided to forgive my Dad. For everything he was. And for everything he wasn’t. And to wish him the peace he never found in this life. We all deserve that – no matter who we are. It may be insignificant, but it’s the last gift, as his daughter, I have left to give.

11 thoughts on “The Last Gift

  • I hope you find peace in your act of forgiveness. My husband is not a good father and it makes our family dynamics very difficult. I only wish that we could all give grace and forgiveness while we’re alive.
    My best to you and the rest of your family.

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  • My dad passed away in October. My family seems to always find a perceived slight in every word. The funeral was torture. Everything in that house has been sitting, disused and uncared for, for years. Yet we had to wait until two days after the service until we could find mementos because one of the executors was convinced we would steal things from each other. How can you even hope to be happy with so much history? My father was the last of our parents, we are now the leading edge. Like you I have been enormously lucky with my marriage. It’s my second marriage as well and she is my trophy wife. She is one of the reasons I have for being grateful. My son is another. What I have learned, if not yet internalized, is that you don’t have to be best. That there is long term joy in trying to be generous in all things. I am taking a year here in Valencia, to slow down and let things flow by. That and the Buñuelos de calabaza at El Contraste in the Ruzafa, cause sitting down to those bundles of joy and a café con leche makes me really happy.

    Thank you for sharing, it gives me perspective. I suspect and hope that your writing also gives you joy as well.

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  • Beautifully said. My father died 2 years ago, and we also had a difficult relationship. His death also hit me harder than I expected. It was as if all the work I’d done to understand him and allow myself to be free of his opinions of me, came rushing back. I had to be very patient with myself and keep forgiving, as you have done. Death is also the “great leveler”, as they say. I can see him now as just a man, who had a difficult life. Thank you for your posts, and I wish you peace.

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    • Its hard fought – for sure. And I hope you do find it in whatever form it takes for you. I thinks it’s something different for each of us. When the anger went away it was easier for me to sift thru it all and see my parents, and my Dad in particular, as people. Flawed like us all. Worthy of grace.

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  • Your post really moved me, very eloquently described grief. It reminded me of the movie “Smoke Signals”, which I highly recommend. In a particularly powerful scene that made me cry, they recite a poem by Dick Lourie:
    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?
    ——————
    Wishing you peace in your grief journey. Rebecca

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    • Thank you Rebecca. Grief is a funny friend. Its like waves on a beach. It crashes over you. Sometimes it takes you by surprise and knocks you down. Other times its like a shadow that only briefly blocks the sun. For such a looming presence n my life, my Dad would yell at me for letting it take me down. I can hear him now ‘Get up and get on with it!’ But I know it will take time.

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