Making peace with past experiences
Have you ever felt you needed to heal from hurtful memories of your dad? Can that happen after he’s passed on?
My parents were of eastern European heritage, having been brought to America as children. They met here and married. My dad was head of the household and my mom succumbed to the role of menial woman in their relationship. He set the rules and she abided by them. He controlled the finances and dictated how the money was to be spent. Mom wasn’t allowed to work outside the home.
My dad was not a loving, affectionate parent to me. My mom had me at age 40 — a complete surprise. I was the last born of four, and as a young child, I feared my dad. He was a big man and very loud; he seemed to always be yelling at my mom.
He favored my next-to-oldest sister and constantly compared me to her. I, of course, never measured up, which was pointed out to me rather often. Through my junior high years, I grew to hate my father. We didn’t speak; we didn’t share any activity. The wall rose between us. However, I did have a roof over my head, my sister’s clothes and food to eat. What more did I need? A lot!
Affection shown from parent to child is monumental to their healthy development. It affects one’s self-image, self-respect and love of self. I lacked all three. But somehow I worked and saved money and went to college, graduating and landing a teaching position in Tupper Lake. Still, I hated my dad. And then, when I was 21, he passed away from emphysema. And he was gone…
But was he? I seemed to carry that hatred for years, and eventually became unaware of its presence and how it was affecting my view of me and of others around me. That desire to please my dad and get his approval and make him proud of me for “any” reason had never been fulfilled. There was a hole inside of me, a vacancy that needed filling.
Questions plagued me. Had he ever loved me? And then, why or why not?
I carried that negative memory through my marriage, feeling it weighing me down from time to time. After all, why recall the hurt and agony of the past? I thought I had been quite successful in casting away those feelings but they had simply become ingrained into my very being. And yet, I somehow knew that forgiveness for what my dad had or hadn’t done was the only way for me to get rid of that hatred and what it was quietly doing to me. I had to forgive him for the person he was. That was “my” choice as it was “my” life. But how?
The opportunity came in 1990 when I registered for an eight-day silent retreat recommended by a friend who had attended the previous year. There, Mother Nature unleashed her loving healing energies upon my willing and open heart. I was ready and she answered my call. A 70-year-old Jesuit father was the spiritual director, who listened to me one hour each day. I was moved by his insight, down-to-earth philosophy and kindness.
It was 20 years since my dad had passed. Each day I opened my journal as I sat beside the calm waters of the nearby lake with hope in my heart but without expectation. I had no idea where my actions might lead. Each day I wrote a letter to my dad and unleashed a memory of some occasion. I let the tears carry me through the agonizing hours as I poured out a detailed description of the detrimental event. I asked him questions, expounding all through my pen-to-paper adventure. I shared my deepest feelings, telling him how the event made me feel about him, about me, and what my needs really were at the time. I allowed all the deeply buried hurts to surface and for many of them, it was the last time. For once the hurt was again allowed to be fully experienced, there was room for insight to move in to that space within me.
That insight allowed me to see my dad with all of “his” agonies and traumas. As the middle son of three, his early life had not been happy. His parents had kicked him out of the house at the end of eighth grade to earn money for the family. His brothers disliked him and he was very much alone. He had to discover his talents himself, surviving and learning the trade of carpentry. He himself had never experienced a loving home; he had no reference for that.
I remember his brilliant mind for numbers. He could figure measurements in his head for all his jobs. He even became the construction foreman for a New York state thruway bridge. But his jobs were only temporary and when the project was completed, he was again on unemployment … and the arguments continued. That’s what I remember most — the fights between Mom and Dad. Dad was the loudest; Mom, a quieter voice. But it happened often during my high school years.
Dad’s jobs had required difficult physical work. Being in his late 50s, he must have felt exhausted and trapped. He couldn’t start over. What else did he know? He was stuck. And he had another child who wanted to go to college — me. The stress of all that…
My insights brought on a bit of understanding of him and his frustrations. I had been so focused on my own hurts, I couldn’t see any of his. Then it began … the healing process … the forgiveness process. It took time and many letters but it did happen; it had begun … there at the lake.
Day by day, week by week, month by month, I could feel myself becoming more accepting, more compassionate and more loving.
Now, when I think of my dad, I feel a warmth I never did in real life. At times, I feel his presence and I choose to think he is enjoying being with me now in spirit, enjoying my accomplishments, enjoying the person I have become.
Now I can say, “I do love you, Dad. Thank you.”
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Debby Havas is an author living in Jay. Her writings express her experiences in the healing energies of Mother Nature.