When my oldest daughter and I lay in bed together, after we finish reading through the same books we’ve been reading every night for two weeks, my two year old sits up and says, “I’m gonna lay on your chest, okay?” She settles herself on top of me, she’s so big for a two year old, and I enjoy the feeling of her weight, knowing this won’t happen forever.
The simplicity of my relationships with my daughters, the ease of our connection, brings to the surface questions for me concerning the strained and complicated relationship I have had with my father over the last several years.
Looking up at me, she starts our nightly routine. “What’s my happiest part of the day? We need to talk about it.” We move onto the saddest part of her day and then we talk about mine. We spend some time guessing Hazel and Daddy’s happiest and saddest parts. And then we lay in silence together before I pray with her and sneak out of her bed. I notice the same thing every night. Laying there on my chest, she looks up into me eyes, and she doesn’t look away. No matter how intently I stare back or how long I hold her gaze.
My father would nap on the couch. He snored terribly, and slept badly at night because of it. He would drift off between meals or while watching TV. As a child, I would crawl up onto the couch and spread my body on top of his. I never napped, I would lay there in silence, noticing the way his beard scratched at my forehead. Making a mental note of what it felt like to be close to him. Looking back, I even wonder if this was my way of holding on to closeness as his work hours increased, his presence at home decreased, and his behavior became a bit more erratic.
We recently threw a benefit for my older brother who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer. The circumstances of his illness have meant I saw more of my father over the course of two days than I had in five year’s time.
I needed time to forgive broken trust, to learn how to live with repeated offenses, and to heal from the wounds he brought into our lives.
We sat next to each other in the chairs of waiting rooms. We set up pots of chili and lined out dozens of cookies. Circling around the room, me avoiding him and stealing glances. He looked so old to me. I think he has put on weight, I have too. I left feeling something I hadn’t felt since I pushed him away over five years ago, the week of Christmas. I missed him.
When did my father become a stranger, someone with whom I could no longer hold eye contact, even for a moment? Five and half years ago, I decided I needed space. I needed time to forgive broken trust, to learn how to live with repeated offenses, and to heal from the wounds he brought into our lives. So much time has passed, and yet I am still camping somewhere between forgiveness and resentment. Even after five years, the right words or the right combination of circumstances and reminders are enough to burst the wounds back open, barely scarred over from the last offense.
Maybe I didn’t miss him, instead I missed the idea of him. I watched with envy as friends cried through their father-daughter dances or typed up eloquent thanks yous on social media when Father’s Day rolled around. Daddy became a source of cynicism to me, it made my stomach turn, my eyes tingle with wetness.
After the benefit, I caught myself fantasizing frequently. There I was, a grown woman with two children, rehearsing scenarios over in my head and reliving memories with alternate endings. Creating the ways in which he would change and make up for the way things were.
I think back to those moments on the couch. I remember the TV on, always on, in the background while he slept. If I woke him as I gingerly climbed up onto the couch and our eyes met for a moment, was it him, or I, who looked away? Did I sever the connection between us when I changed my number or was it his choices year after year that slowly frayed our tie?
I know I have been resentful and calloused. But I have also been a child who was abandoned, confused and afraid. How do I marry my repentance and forgiveness with the reality that he may remain unchanged?
I am terrified of the next steps. Where do you pick up after five years of radio silence? Father’s Day is approaching, I am not sure I have ever been more aware of this holiday’s impending arrival. I have come to terms with the idea that we will never have the relationship I desire. Still, my heart has been softened to the idea of us moving on past the silence.
For the first time, I am willing to consider how beautifully the gospel could play out in our connection. Could I extend my friendship to him as gift? Instead of waiting for him to love me well or to change, could I find the confidence to connect with him in healthy ways, because I have been loved and I have been changed? Can I trust in divine protection when the inevitable disappointment and hurt come my way? Could I lean fully on my perfect Father for the courage to look him in the eyes again after all this time?