For over forty years, I carried the weight of unforgiveness for my dad. He had deserted our family when we needed him most. He had not been there for me to show me things I thought males were expected to know, how to work on cars, how to repair things around the house. About half way through that time, however I made a stunning discovery that changed the entire look and feel of my life and gave me the strength when the time came to forgive my father for abandoning me.
My dad, when he was around, was a pleasant enough man. I remember he liked music. He played the upright bass, I have a photo of him with his trio. He had a clean-cut look, black hair combed neatly and a disarming smile. He was strong and able to do any kind of work. I don’t remember him swearing. Mostly I remember his absences and his broken promise.
As far back as I can remember there was tension between mom and dad. He had flights of fancy that she couldn’t abide. He moved her from the security of the family fold in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Wisconsin in hopes of realizing his dream of success. I imagine this caused simmering resentments for a woman alone in an unfamiliar state with five children and a husband who couldn’t settle down.
Even though we stayed in the same little Wisconsin town for my first fourteen years, we still moved three times, for economic reasons and I suspect dad’s changing dreams. One dream involved going out west. Another meant moving to a large city just over the border in Illinois. Once he even came home as a car salesman in a brand new two-tone Oldsmobile hardtop. He didn’t seem suited for everyday work. He had too many big ideas. And they all seemed to carry him away from my mom, two sisters, two brothers and me. Each dream he pursued seemed to make things worse for the family financially.
Once, I had a job as a paper boy with a small income. One night I was put on a long-distance phone call from him: “Son, your mother doesn’t have any money for food. Can you give her your paper route money?” I was torn because I had been saving my earnings for a boys bike to ride instead of my sister’s. When I told this to dad his counter was “I am getting you a new Schwinn.” I gave her the money, but he never followed through with that promise.
Then came the announcement of yet another move, this time to Illinois. Unfortunately, because of finances once again, we ended up having no place to live for awhile. Exasperated my mother finally went to investigate. She returned saying that he had taken off and she had no idea where he was.
Over the years, I fluctuated from deep anger (“I don’t want anything to do with him anymore”) to curiosity (“I wonder whatever happened to dad?”). One day, believing I had his address in the Chicago area I sat in my vehicle wondering if I should knock on the door and confront him. I chose not to and drove back to Michigan still wondering what had happened to my father.
Forty four years after his abandonment we finally heard news about him and saw him. His common law wife had called my aunt because he was in the hospital and she thought his first family ought to know what was going on.
So all of my siblings and I traveled to Kentucky for a visit. Of course I was eager to see him and suddenly it seemed as though there was nothing to be angry about. I just wanted to see my dad again. By the time we drove up to the nursing facility I just wanted to see him, talk to him and maybe even hug him.
He was smaller and weaker then. When he coughed there was an explosion of phlegm that went off in his throat, headed to his chest and shook his body. I felt a kindred spirit with the man I had once admired and missed so much. When we parted, there was a group hug and he said “I am so sorry.”
Since that visit I have reflected on how it was that I was able to forgive my father after all those years. Perhaps the love I had for him had been healed by the passing of time. I believe that time does have a way of healing old hurts. I, however, attribute it to something more powerful than just time’s passing.
Years earlier there had been a spiritual awakening in me. The words of the Gospel were suddenly clear to me and I became a brand new person in Jesus Christ. It was an exciting time exploring the Bible and experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit in my life.
One of my first experiences with God’s help was the discovery of the relief and healing which comes from forgiving others. I learned the invitation of Jesus to “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Mt 11:28 NIV) could easily apply to the burden of long-held resentments. One night with God’s help, I was able to release to God the millstone of a nursed grudge against a relative. This convinced me that forgiveness was right for me in any broken relationship I had, including the one with my dad.
Another gripping event happened in private prayer when, I believe, the Lord whispered to my heart that He was my Heavenly Father and He would never leave me or forsake me. This thought flowed like warm liquid through every nerve and muscle in my body. While my earthly father had chosen to leave me, I still had not been fatherless. My Father in Heaven had always been there and would always take care of me, stick with me and guide me as a Father should.
So after so many years of anger and then curiosity I realized I had never really been different from the other boys. I had a father too.
Because of my life experiences with my dad, the words of the Psalmist spoke a powerful truth and brought comfort beyond measure to my soul: “Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds his name is the LORD—and rejoice before him. A father to the fatherless….” Ps 68:4 –Ps 68:5 (NIV)
My Christian faith is so precious to me, not least of all because it gave me a Father I can trust, can turn to, and can spend all the time in the world with. My faith in Christ also gave me invaluable insights which allowed me to tap into God’s healing forgiveness and move past the hurt I’d carried from my earthly father for almost four and a half decades.