Oh gosh oh gosh oh gosh I have to write this down quickly while I’m able to see it, because it’s a big moving complex thing and I won’t be able to hold it for long but it holds the truth.
People ask me how I have been able to forgive my father — for the things he did that need forgiveness are truly terrible. Truly. Truly terrible. My favorite joke: I only survived him because he was usually too drunk to aim the gun well.
It has taken me 35 years, all together, to get here. That’s one part of how I got here. But the end point of the trip was this:
It’s all a universe. It’s all there in one big tangled, moving thing, and before I got to this place I could only see the HIM doing things to ME bit, and they were so egregious that I felt like trying to understand him as a human would be unfair to me, it would “let him off the hook” (my favorite really horrible phrase if you think about it). I recently said this in a manuscript evaluation to a client who’d written a father who was kind of one-note terrible. I told her that I understood that impulse: “It’s hard to give the bad guy a slug of humanity, because you don’t want your readers to miss the fact that HE IS SUCH A BAD GUY. But in doing so, he doesn’t read as a real person. He reads as a cardboard cut-out.” I understood that because of my sad 35-year wrestling match with my father.
But I’m old enough now to be able to step far, far back and look. And I see this very large, moving system — it isn’t just him and me, it’s him within his family. And his family within theirs. It’s patterns and dispositions and circumstances. And winding his way through all this complex universe is the small light that is my father….emerging into his original family of a hateful, cruel woman who didn’t want him and a vicious alcoholic father who wanted him even less, and in a context of extreme poverty, and cotton ginning, and alcoholism. And he was a sickly little guy, a bookish little boy, and both those things made his father beat the shit out of him even more. So this little light that was my father made his way through those horrors and thought he was jumping out of that hell only to jump further down into a deeper hell of my cruel, cruel, cruel mother, who lashed him and belittled him and shamed him and taunted him about not being man enough to kill himself.
And none of that is to excuse what he did to me, but it is to see all these moving parts, all these elements, and they’re all spinning and whirling, and connected and interconnected. His deep needs and wants and wounds found hers — she, who was abandoned and neglected to the point of huge bleeding sores because she lived in soaking wet diapers, and then adopted by her uncle who did what he was supposed to do, but his wife wasn’t interested in a little girl and was cruel and shaming. Etc etc etc. All these terriblenesses, intersecting and feeding each other and sticking each other with the sharpest knives in the hurtingest places, and then through all that, through all those ripples and whirlings comes the little light that is me, and I land in the middle of all that.
So where do I begin, really, to maintain a tight focus on how he wronged me? What all must I willfully ignore and pretend away, in order to hang onto the ways he wronged me? And yet he did, and yet and yet and yet. It requires a clinging to an overly simple story to insist on a child’s version of being wronged. It’s not wrong, and yet it is.
Finding myself here requires me to occasionally pant a little bit, like a laboring mother in transition who wants to push too soon. When the “yeah, but he….” impulse comes on, I pant in order to remember this larger understanding, which I deeply believe comes as close to truth as I can ever get.
So today, on what would’ve been his 81st birthday, I rang my Tibetan singing bowl three times into my valley. Each time I held the bowl until it was completely still before striking it again, and in the interstitial silence I told him I forgave him. Or I told him I’d loved him. Or I told him I was sorry it had been so hard. And when I struck it the second time, a large, brilliant male cardinal landed on the deck railing.
It’s OK Dad. Go gently.