Relationships with anyone can be complicated and challenging, but my relationships with him was non-existent. It had been twenty-five years since I had spoken to him. Sitting on my patio with an envelope in my hand with his return address on it was shocking enough. The anticipation of opening the envelope to see what he had written inside was electric. As a forty-seven-year-old, the weight and amazement of reading the words “I am sorry I failed you” was mind blowing.
I sat staring at the letter. Do I answer it? What would I say? The last time we had spoken I wasn’t even calling him what he was to me, just Peter. Peter was a toxic, bullying womanizer. He was charismatic, a racist, a narcissistic know-it-all. An abusive monster.
Peter was also my father.
I wrote back explaining that I was open to the idea of speaking, but that I needed time to adjust to my new life and then I would contact him. I had just moved across the country after a divorce and the grief I was experiencing was just about all I could handle. The idea of speaking to my father after all that time was more than I could deal with, but after six months I decided I was ready.
I called one Sunday as I waked my dog, Karma, and was surprised at how much I liked hearing his voice. He was gracious, blunt and full of gratitude for me calling. How could I resist when he said, “Come up and see us. I want to give you the chance to say anything you need to me. I want to apologize to you in person. Please come!”
So, I packed a bag and Karma in my car and we headed to Colorado.
When faced with the inevitable disappointments in relationships and carrying the weight of resentment and anger is hurting, you have some clear choices:
You can declare, relationships suck. I’m better off without this person and leave.
You can silently forgive this person for the relationship infraction. Not for them, but for you and continue on, hoping it will never happen again.
You can choose to have a courageous conversation and let its outcome set a path to forgiveness, potentially leading toward the rebuilding of new relationship.
The long drive up gave me a lot of time to reflect on the monster I had lived with. He was an air traffic controller by profession and worked odd hours. When he was at the house I learned to disappear because he was either angry or distant. A real taskmaster I was given challenging chores at a very young age. I was expected to help because he made it clear that I, and my two brothers, were a burden.
Because of his shift work he slept sometimes during the day and when he did we had to be extremely quiet. One peep and he would whip us with a belt. The belt was never far from my mind. Any small infraction of the rules and the belt would come out.
The worst part of the beatings was that I had to go and get the belt myself.
The long walk from the living room to his closet to select the belt was the worst torture. Standing in the closet looking at them I would try and gauge the width of the belt in relation to how bad it was going to hurt. Before he struck me, he would say, “This is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you.” I wasn’t even allowed to be the one in pain; he was given that honor.
As the years progressed I started to panic at the thought of him even coming home. I stayed outside most of the time. Avoiding him at dinner was unacceptable. The table had to be set perfectly and if a water glass was missing or a fork out of place he would explode in a rage. Every drop of food had to be eaten or we could not leave the table. I would sit at the table sometimes till late into the night. It took me well into my twenties to learn to leave a speck of food on my plate.
Over the years when questioned as to why I did not speak to my father I would always tell “the puppy story.” When I was around two or three we were driving my grandfather home from the hospital with a puppy in the car. My father kept saying, “Keep the puppy in the back, it is bothering Papa.” My brothers and I would try but the puppy kept sneaking around the seat till finally my father said, “That’s it!” and pulled the car over. He yanked the puppy out of the car by the scruff of its neck and put it in the trunk. It yelped for a while but once quiet we pulled the car over again.
We all were required to get out and see the dead dog.
We put it in a box on a little creek and watched it float away. I internalized that gruesome act because I saw his message as, “Do what I say, or I’ll throw you in the trunk.” I was petrified of the man.
Once my mother finally had the guts to divorce him, I was eight years old. All of us started working to help my mother. In my teens he was around some, but you could always tell it was not something he wanted to be doing. The last I had spoken to him was at twenty-four. I had decided that my life was better off without him. It was.
As I pulled into the gravel driveway I saw people off in the distance on the porch. Tired from the eleven-hour drive to his house I spied him immediately. It was his walk. My father walks with a shift in his gait that comes from his hips in a jerky way because of a motorcycle accident thirty years ago. The elevated shoe he uses works for all intents and purposes, but I also know what his leg looks like underneath the jeans he is wearing. Scarred and freakish, his leg looks like a shark has mangled it.
I may not have seen that walk in twenty-five years, but the visual image of him moving across the porch, down the stairs and towards my approaching car was comforting. How disorienting that was, as I had assumed I would be revolted at the sight of him. I felt small and vulnerable. I had spent the last eleven hours wondering how I would feel at this very moment. On the long, stunning drive I had asked myself, over and over again, this simple question: What am I doing this for? I stopped and took a long, slow breath while snapping a rubber band on my wrist. I had recently learned this simple technique while being treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) the year before. It helped me focus on staying in my body, as had many years of yoga. I crept forward and stopped. He smiled. I inched forward, slowly. He walked towards the car, so I continued up the long driveway. As he got closer I saw a look of joy that I had never seen on his face before. All my questions somehow dissolved as I pulled forward, anxiously anticipating hearing his voice again. I stopped, put the car in park and opened the door.
“Hello Stephanie,” my father said. “Welcome to Colorado.”
I moved closer and hugged him. I looked over his shoulder and saw the smiling face of my stepmother, Sarabeth. She has a very distinct giggle and slight squeal when she is happy. Her Texas drawl came through clearly as she said, “Come on up on the porch, darlin’, and have a drink.”
I am not nervous at all, but the immensity of the moment is there. The weight of the moment is compelling. The surprise is that I feel like I’m home – like very little time has passed.
The next four days were spent saying everything we need to say to each other. I said my fill. He said his. We made up. It was all the little girl that still lives in me could hope for. I couldn’t help but wonder if now there would be enough time to escape the vacuum of the past we had between us? Would there be enough time to bridge the huge gulf of space that was ever-present? Time to heal the emotional pain that had left scars on my psyche and spirit?
Although he has Stage IV (Metastasized) cancer, he seems optimistic and never mentions being sick unless I bring it up. Straightforward and extremely blunt, he and I discuss everything and anything. I like that about him. I missed that about him. I never really understood wishy-washy in people and I must have learned to appreciate bluntness from him.
Since re-connecting with my father, family and friends have asked me what it was like. How do I describe someone I really am just getting to know? Without speaking to him for the last quarter century I am just forming an opinion. I feel like one of those kids who had been left with a foster family out in the wilderness, who made up stories of a perfect fairy tale family that I had read about in books only to learn that the truth was my family would never be in any book. Maybe a tragic tale, but certain not a fairy tale. I feel like my secret wish of a do-over, from the very beginning, could certainly never come true now. The truth of my past was raw and real, not distant and glossed over. Because of so much lost time, it was overwhelming at where to actually go back to and start over, so we didn’t. We simply started again.
Of course we did discuss some of the past. I had to deal with the harsh reality, the truth of the matter, that when I was growing up he used to say we were just alike. I hated that. But now I am making peace with that idea. I walked away a long time ago blaming him for my bad qualities, like his, yet never really giving him credit for my good qualities that were like his.
He and I both have a wicked sense of humor, a strong work ethic, a clear voice, fearlessness and strength. I needed all those qualities in my last year of challenges, growth and change. I drew upon them again and again.
I feel a little less alone now that I have welcomed my father back in to my life.
Cancer and time had softened him. Still intense, yet a newfound sense of peace had really changed his expression. The black eyes remained the same. A once-full head of dark brown hair was now gone too. Sparse tufts of grey covered his crown. Grey hair could explain the physical outward appearance looking softer, but it was more than that. The anger was gone.
The real beauty about this tale is that this new relationship has nothing to do with appearance. It is all about substance, connection and making up for lost time.
Fast forward, my father called me recently to go over his will. I think he is tired of the fight or maybe he has received news that the treatments are not going well. He was serious on the phone and I told him that I would be there for Sarabeth because I now understand what it is like to lose someone. He said it was the greatest gift I could give him. I came away from the call wanting more time to know this man, my father.
But hanging up the phone I realize our time together is limited. It always is.
Pick up the phone. Call them. Sit down. Write a letter if that feels safer to start with. Don’t wait. If they don’t respond, never give up. For you. For them. For all our own flaws and failures. Forgive them for you.
Make peace with those who have hurt you. Forgive them for humanity. For as we learn to love each other more, beyond past failures, unexpected twists and turns in life, mistakes, and unmet expectations, we heal humanity. @Stephanieyogini (Click To Tweet!)
Stephanie Spence is the author of Yoga Wisdom: Warrior Tales Inspiring You On And Off Your Mat (Skyhorse Publishing, Oct 2018), a certified yoga teacher, yoga blogger, mother, partner and daughter. She contributes regularly to OM Lifestyle & Yoga Magazine and Yoga Guide. Connect with her at one-with-life.com or @Stephanieyogini.
Image courtesy of Tobi.