Friday, 21 February 2014

my dad, part 4: face to face

(my dad, part 3: fallout)

Before I start, I need to say this: I struggled for years to forgive my dad. I wanted to forgive him for my own sake, to get free. But each time I tried, rage would bubble up from deep inside because of the way my dad's choices had ruined my life.

Until, through the fog, I realised two things: first, my pain wasn't entirely his fault. Yes, he abused me, but he didn't force me to self-harm or starve myself. I'd made bad choices too, and I had to take ownership of those.

Second, my dad and I were in the same boat. He was also a victim of childhood abuse; but since he never healed, he passed the pain on to me. If I didn't forgive, I could end up doing the same thing to my kids. 

Fying to New Zealand with my dad, 1976

As a 35-yr-old adult, I was too afraid to visit dad on my own. So I took my sister with me - old habit dies hard!

I tried to visit him once in my teens, when he lived in a ramshackle old caravan on his building site, but he refused to open the door. The second time was just before my wedding, when my husband convinced me that dad needed to give me away. (Long story short, he was right, though it added mega-stress to the day!) But this was the first time I'd been inside the raw cobbled-together house my dad had lived in for the past 15 years.

My dad's face was the same - a face I'd both loved and feared - apart from a patch over his right eye following surgery a few years earlier to remove a brain tumor. But his belly was now large and swollen, pregnant with more tumors.

Impending death has a way of sweeping away years and focusing thoughts; but I found that day difficult because, although we talked, we said nothing. It was a plastic conversation, sidestepping so much unspoken grief.

Afterwards I realised I just couldn't miss the opportunity to be real with my dad.

The next day I asked my younger brother if I could bring up the past during our visit. He rolled his eyes but thankfully agreed.

"Dad, I was hoping we could talk about the abuse."

He went white. "How dare you bring that up at a time like this?" He paused for a few seconds that stretched out towards me like a black hole, waiting to swallow me up. "Yes, I did abuse you, but I was sick then and I won't be held responsible." A few more silent seconds. "Now get out, and don't bother coming back!"

I walked back to my mum's house in tears. Sure, my dad had finally admitted the abuse after years of denying it - a huge plus - but he'd also shut me out.

Over the next three days I wrote him a letter, praying over every word because I knew that without divine help, he wouldn't get what I was trying to say. Then I dropped the letter in his mailbox and cried, convinced it was over.

But the next day he phoned, asking for me. "Thanks for the letter. Would you please come and see me again?"

This time when he opened the door he said, quite simply, "Can we not talk about this anymore?" And I was happy with that - there was no apology, but I knew it was an invitation to peace.

As I waved goodbye for the last time, I knew my dad had suffered in his own way - left lonely, bitter and empty because of the choices he'd made. And for the first time I felt huge, crazy compassion, not only for my dad but for all the other broken, abusive people out there. They were people trapped by pain; God in his mercy wanted to scoop them up in his arms but they refused to be held.

Flying home to Ireland I felt so free on the inside. There was still work to do, but I was a different person and my husband could see it too.

I know not everyone has the opportunity to meet with their abuser face to face - that was a gift. But there are other ways to let go. If you're battling to forgive someone, can I encourage you to read my letter - in the next post - and write your own?* If you can't or don't want to give it to that person, then give it to someone you really trust - or give it to God, and ask him what to do next. It may not be the immediate fix you're looking for, but it's a definite step on the road to healing.

* You won't see much anger in my letter - I knew if I exploded, my dad wouldn't bother to read it 
- and by that time his suffering had defused most of my anger anyway!


  1. So incredibly powerful. Thanks for sharing. "...and by the power of your testimony, you overcome."

  2. hi to the person who left a question here about blog code - I can't find your comment on the site now so maybe you've deleted it? All I can really tell you is that you don't need any html expertise to use blogger unless you want to start adding a few bells and whistles ... if you're blogging from your own website it might be a bit harder. I'd get your web designer to help you unless you designed your site yourself, in which case - everything I know I learned from google!! best of luck.