I never called my father worthless. That was his own word for himself. I had other words to describe him. But in a way he was right.
He said it on the phone after I told him I was flying down to see him, from my home in Alaska to the rehab facility in Florida.
My sister had flown down already and was there with him now. Other siblings were coming later. He had had a stroke the week before and now could barely speak.
I’ll see you in about three weeks!” I said, trying to make my voice cheerful, to lift him from his misery.
“I’mmm . . . not . . . worth . . . ,” he stumbled.
“Of course you’re worth it!” I protested, horrified. But I knew instantly what he meant. In the human balances of justice and fairness, he had done nothing to deserve this kind of sacrifice and attention from his children.
He could not or would not hold a job, leaving us impoverished and ashamed throughout our childhood.
He seemed incapable of forming relationships, and treated his children as though we were invisible, except for the abuse visited upon some of us.
Soon after we grew up and left our house, he moved to Florida to live alone, thousands of miles from his children. I was glad.
I saw my father three times in the next thirty years, always me traveling four time zones to see him. I went each time needy and hopeful that he would express interest in me, show some kind of affirmation. I left each time hurt, hollow. He would barely speak to me, and when he did, he ridiculed my faith. The last time I saw him, I resolved never to go back.
But eight years later, I was gently pushing his wheelchair down the hallway, sharing meals with him, watching TV in his room, reading to him.
In all of it, I could not shake the injustice and inequity--that every gift and kindness given, he had never shown to me. Ever. But something else was even stronger. A desire to forgive.
I remembered what I believed, that God had released me from my debts against Him, and I knew He required me to do the same for those who owed me.
We are to “forgive as we have been forgiven.” Could I not extend the freedom I had been given to him?
I began to try, moving slowly from what C.S. Lewis calls “need love” to “gift love, ” looking past my blinding needs as a daughter to see the pain in his life.
Had anyone loved him? How might I have hurt him?
After that visit, I knew I would return. I began praying for him, calling and sending gifts and letters.
I realized it was not justice or equity I wanted most of all, but relief. Often we think the cost of forgiving is too high, but we do not consider the cost of not forgiving.
I found relief in releasing his debts against me, especially as I realized my father could not pay what he owed me. Nor can many parents.
I found the yoke of forgiveness, then, lighter than the yoke of hurt and hate. I found the yoke of caring for him easier than the burden of abandoning him.
And love came back. Yes, in small doses. He called me “amazing,” one day. He phoned on my birthday. When I came to visit, he didn’t want me to leave. All of this was new. All of this broke my new-found heart.
Forgiving my father has changed me. The broken and bitter parts of me are healing.
One forgiveness has led to others and to my own apologies from those I know I have hurt. I am moving toward the person I hope to be.
My father was touched as well. In the last two years of his life, my “worthless” father was surrounded and blessed by the very ones he had harmed.
I believe he felt loved, perhaps for the first time. We cannot heal all the broken families of the world, but we can begin here: with ourselves and our own families. With God’s forgiveness and love, anything is possible.
Leslie Leyland Fields is an award-winning author of eight books, a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a national speaker, a popular radio guest, and a sometimes commercial fisherwoman, working with her husband and 6 children in commercial fishing on Kodiak Island, Alaska where she has lived for 36 years. Her latest book, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers (Thomas Nelson), released January 21, 2014.