I write this in response to an online prompt I received today, asking about forgiveness in my own life. It immediately brought to mind the greatest process of forgiveness I’ve experienced—forgiving my father.
I grew up with an abusive dad. He was born in 1917 during an era with much different values and disciplinary tactics than today. During my early years in the late 70s/early80s, in certain socioeconomic households it was normal to whip children. My dad whipped me, my older brother, and older sister, on average, about once every week or two.
He also beat our schizophrenic mother in their bedroom, under the cover of darkness, with a strap he kept in a nightstand whenever she went into a fit, saying he did so at the recommendation of their doctor.
He would force us to pray as a disciplinary technique. “Ya’ll get on ya’ll knees!” he’d yell. He made us kneel bare-kneed on the hardwood floor for long durations of time until he was satisfied that we suffered enough.
I am pressed to remember a conversation between my father and I lasting longer than a minute during those years.
I grew up fearing my father until about the age of 13 when I reached 6’2″, realizing he could no longer physically control me and when I grew mature enough to realize “Not every household is like ours.” At that point his age prevented him from being able to discipline us as much anyway. I worked summers during high school which made me less financially dependent on him.
I went off to college and returned home during vacations, even more independent as a young adult. My mother died while I was in college, which left my father living alone in his old age. He asked me to come back home after I graduated to help him out. I did.
He grew less and less able to do things around the house. I took over grocery shopping, paying bills at the utility offices (before the internet and ATMs,) cooking, and other errands. The caregiver/caretaker roles were now reversed. It was more like living with a roommate then.
I specifically remember the moment when I felt a life-transitioning connection with my father. One morning while cooking breakfast I heard him start the lawnmower. I often told him I could do it—he refused every time; he valued his manly pride as the caregiver. This was one of the last chores he stopped doing for the household.
I looked out the window and watched him mow the lawn. His old legs trudging along. Hunched shoulders. Using the lawnmower more as a walker. Emptying the catch of grass into a large Hefty bag.
I saw him differently…
No longer seeing him as a role. As a father. As a tyrant. As a dictator. As an abuser. No longer seeing him as anything other than…
A human being.
I grew teary-eyed, realizing how fragile he had become. One of the last efforts he held onto in his life after over 80 years? Cutting the grass. I realized how much he must have put into his life previously to get to the point of being able to simply cut the grass in a house he could call his own.
He was just a human being doing the best he could.
As we all are.
From that point on we talked more. We would watch Lakers games on TV together. I’d check in more to see if he needed anything. I started suggesting different meal plans and would discuss healthier options with him.
Then one night after going out dancing, I returned to see him still sitting on the couch watching TV at 1 am.
“I can’t get up. My legs can’t hold me.”
I tried helping him up to standing. His knees wobbled and he fell back onto the couch. I tried once again. Still no strength. I suggested calling 911 for help. He refused, saying to wait until the morning to see if he could get around then.
He asked me to help him get to his bed. He put his arms around my neck. I slid my hands underneath his knees.
I lifted him, expecting him to be heavier. He was frail. Thin. Wrinkled flesh on bone. The man who once whipped me with his pain was now lighter than a feather.
I carried him to his bed, laying him down gently. Tucking him in like one does for a toddler.
The next morning he wasn’t any better. I carried him back to the living room, explaining that I couldn’t take care of him alone anymore. He had always begged us not to put him into a nursing home. Yet, when I suggested it to him, he quietly nodded in gentle acceptance.
I carried him once again to the car, buckled him in, and drove him to the doctor. Over the course of the following months he was between seeing doctors, taking different medications, being at the nursing home, and going in and out of different stages of comas. I would visit him a few times a week to sit as company.
Knowing he was in his twilight years, I told him that I no longer held any ill feelings for what he did to us growing up. He didn’t say much, just listened. I said, “I forgive you,” and he simply gave that same quiet, gentle nod of acceptance.
He contracted pneumonia and other ailments during his last days. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 86.
Forgiveness is being at peace with the past. I know I could never do what I do today as a figurehead for compassion if it were not for forgiving my father. I always suggest to those who come to me asking about forgiveness to do it before someone passes.
If you feel inclined to forgive someone, do it now. Don’t wait for the right time or right circumstances. They come in the now anyway. Release the fear and turn it into love. Now. It will bring a great sense of peace and understanding into your heart.