As I sit listening to the rhythmic sounds of the respirator, there appears to be a musical timing to the machine that is keeping my father alive. Dad has severe health issues. The first to come was Alzheimer’s disease. Then four years ago he had a series of strokes that have left him totally bedridden. His body is now constricted and weak. No longer able to swallow, he is being fed through a tube implanted in his stomach. During a recent surgery he went into cardiac arrest which is why he is now on the respirator.
I can’t help but shed tears for the frail man, a former likeness of himself, lying in the hospital bed. I remember him young, strong, and robust. Dad was a snappy dresser, with his own sense of style. He was a smart, educated man who had an extended knowledge of jazz. Ask him anything about the old masters: Duke, Lionel, Miles, and of course, Lady Day. They were like old friends to him. They were part of his rhythm, his heart beat. To him they were like family.
All my life we’ve had this on again off again relationship. After five years of marriage, three children and one on the way (me), my parents figured out that they did not belong together. I did not see him much. Visits with him were far and few in between. I was lucky if I saw him during the holidays. I never saw him on birthdays, school plays or sporting events. He just simply was not there. And, if by chance on a rare occasion we were together, the amount of time he spent with me was shallow and brief.
I was about five and my brother had just turned seven, mom told us that dad was coming for a visit. Dressed in our best clothes, we were so excited that our father was coming to take us out. Mom instructed us to sit on the sofa and watch TV while we waited for him to arrive. She did not want us to play for fear that we’d get messy. After two hours had passed, mom told us to change into our play clothes. Just then there was a knock on the door. It was Daddy! Of course we tried to tackle him in our excitement, but he was much bigger and stronger than we were. He grabbed both of us in each arm and we kissed him on both cheeks. I remember how special it felt walking up the street with Dad. I’m sure my brother felt the same way. None of our friends had ever seen our father. I guess he was an urban legend come to life. As we walked hand in hand, we vied for dad’s attention chattering on about this and that. When we arrived at the corner store dad told us that we could have what ever we wanted. My brother asked for a bag of potato chips and a grape soda. As usual I asked for the same. What ever my brother did I tried to do too.
We left the store and continued our journey on foot. Before we knew it, we were back at home. Dad said that he had to go. Mom told us to go into the kitchen to eat our snack. Although the door was closed, we could hear them arguing. Mom did most of the yelling. She was upset that dad’s idea of taking us out was a walk to the corner store. The entire trip took about a half hour. Over the years when mom would talk about her marriage to dad, she would often refer to that incident. When she spoke of it I could still hear hurt and anger in her voice.
After our outing, I can’t say that I remember when I saw dad again. You see, my dad was a prodigal father. Just like the parable, he wasted his youth on drugs, women and song. He totally neglected his family and lived the life of a bachelor. Instead of spending those precious years with his children, he practically ignored us. He left behind a broken, bruised family and an angry unforgiving wife who transferred her feelings of sadness, anger and bitterness onto her children. We grew up pursuing his love and attention. We wanted to bask in him. We wanted to feast on him and all we received was a table of crumbs. As a consequence of his neglect – without a father’s guidance my brothers made terrible choices. They too fell into a life of addictions and crime. I, on the other hand, sought his attention and approval. However, without the protection of a father, I was sexually abused by my mother’s boyfriend. After, I became promiscuous and soon found myself a teenage parent and a high school dropout.
When I got married I wasn’t sure he’d show up for the ceremony. I was overjoyed when he did. The photos are lovely but we were far from having a real relationship. Through the years I’d phone dad to invite him to family outings, he’d either evade the subject or promise to come but never show. During one of our phone conversations I told dad that he had missed all of my growing up. I told him that he had two wonderful grandchildren who love him. I asked him, “Don’t you want to be a part of their lives?” His answer hurt me more than anything I had ever experienced up to that point. His answer was total silence. If only he had lied to me and promised to be part of the family for the sake of the grandchildren. Knowing it was a lie, I would have accepted it. But his total silence – I just could not take. I said a tearful goodbye and rushed to the comfort of my husband’s arms. Completely shattered, I finally knew. I told my husband, “One day my father is going to need me and I will be there for him.” How could I have known the depth of such a promise? I had no idea that my father’s health would deteriorate. I did not know that I would be the one he would have to depend on to care for him.
From that day on, I began to ask God to change my heart from an angry,
needy one to a completely joyful heart. “Let all bitterness and wrath and
anger, and clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you,
with all malice: And be ye kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving
one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).
God began to minister to me and just like a loving father He comforted me. He began to heal me. He started teaching me to love unconditionally. After all, didn’t He do the same for me? While I was yet in the bondage of sin, our loving Father forgave me. How awesome! If He did it for me, then He expects me to do the same for others.
“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your father
forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
He showed me how to look past the faults of my father. He showed me how to maximize even the smallest amount of time we spent together. The few occasions that dad spent with our children became pleasant experiences. I learned not to expect more from my father than he was capable of giving. I learned not to hold his past up in his face. All that mattered was the present. In return God gave me a sweet relief. He took away the sorrow. My children did not inherit bitterness and disdain. They simply learned to enjoy Grandpa. What I learned was to forgive him of his wrongs and love him. I think that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it so well: “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love….”
Update: Dad went on to Glory January 20, 2007, shortly after this article was submitted.
This article was first printed in Extreme Woman Magazine June 1997. It was reprinted in Connections Newsletter, January 2010. It was a catalyst for my book Sisters With SASS, available at Amazon.com or on Kindle. Click book to follow link.