Forgiveness. When I gaze into his weary age-old eyes, it’s hard to reconcile this bent figure in front of me with the man I’ve had a turbulent relationship with all my adult life.
He’s my father. I’m his daughter. A relationship that has seen more curves, highs and lows than a rollercoaster, it’s in the twilight of his life that I’m thinking of how forgiveness has very much played a role in healing painful memories of times long past.
It’s funny how we downplay the role dads play in the lives of their daughters. Because there’s a certain misconception that how fathers perform as parents is less of an issue since most view a daughter’s relationship to her dad as secondary to her bond with her mother.
Truth be told, fathers do have a profound impact on their daughters’ lives. As much as we hate to admit it. Yet, for many women, because of the lack of intimacy and bond with their fathers, they’re unable to fully explore their relationship with dads. Instead, they spend much more of their time examining their mother-daughter bond.
Every time Father’s Day rolls in, I’m forced to re-examine my own relationship with dad. Simply because it has been so difficult to find a reason to celebrate a damaged, imperfect relationship. There’s really no Hallmark card that can quite describe my ties with the man who fathered me.
I’ve never had the best of relationships with my father. None of us (my three siblings and I) have. My dad belongs to the old school of men who ruled their household (including their wives) with an iron fist. We grew up at first fearing him, until we got old enough to make up our own minds. And once that happened, everything blew apart.
Dad never saw it coming — that he’d soon have four opinionated daughters with minds of their own, who grew up challenging his decisions and questioning his choices. Our childhood, and a good part of our adulthood, was spent coping with issues that sprung up from a volatile marriage (our parents’) and bad financial as well as personal decisions made by our father. We grew up angry, defensive, sad but most of all, we grew up resenting him for not trying hard enough to make our family unit work.
My dad and I hardly saw eye to eye on most things, and the times we did communicate resulted in raised voices, hurtful exchanges and a lot of tears. I could never understand him, and quite frankly, he couldn’t figure me out either. We were too alike in nature — opinionated and stubborn with a fiery temper to boot. He tried to control me with an iron fist, and I retaliated by rebelling even more. Finally, I decided to leave home.
I can still recall how he strongly opposed my leaving home right till the time I actually left. I was so determined to live my own life and make my own mistakes, believing that he failed me as a father and that I’d do better living out there on my own. The first time I saw a crack in the wall my dad built around himself was the moment he turned his face the other way when I said goodbye. I actually saw him cry.
Sometimes living on your own teaches you some hard lessons that you’ll never forget.
My first year away from home was a nightmare. My daddy issues had hurt me more than I had realised. I was a classic example of what psychologist Dr Linda Nielsen (who’s been studying father-daughter relationships) said.
“The quality of a daughter’s relationship is always affecting her relationships with people — either in good or in bad ways,” she writes, continuing: “When a woman doesn’t trust men, can’t maintain an ongoing relationship, can’t communicate or is co-dependent, this is probably because her relationship with her father lacked trust and/or communication.”
So, yes, I had trouble with relationships, little trust and no inkling of how to carry out a normal loving relationship with anyone, let alone the opposite sex. And this burnt me badly. Pretty soon, I was longing to return to the relative safety of my home, but was too proud to admit it. I was miserable. Shockingly enough, dad knew.
When I returned home for a brief holiday, he called me aside and placed his business card in my hand, saying gruffly: “”I know you think I’m a terrible father, but if you ever need to come back, if you ever need me at all, just call. I’ll be there...” Needless to say I cried, clutching his card in my hand.
I only came home eight years later. Nevertheless, I appreciate the effort my father took to reach out to me when I desperately needed him.
The eight years away taught me an invaluable lesson — that my dad, despite all his weaknesses and faults, loved me. He probably didn’t know how to show it in conventional ways like other dads, but in ways that mattered most to me, he did, or at least he tried to.
Our relationship improved slowly. No great displays of affection, but tentative, even careful efforts by both sides trying to reach middle ground.
And then, one day my father had a heart attack. As soon as I got the news, I dropped everything and made that long trek back home. So many regrets surfaced and all I could do was pray that he’d survive this.
Dad did survive. He also survived a bypass, amputation and quite recently, a brain surgery. Amazingly enough, he carries on living defiantly, proudly, and with a persistence I’ve never seen in anyone else.
I still can’t really define the kind of relationship I have with my father. There are times when he infuriates me and makes me want to scream out loud in frustration. Yet, there are those very elusive moments few and far between when I look at him and my heart just swells with love. When I need comforting, I find myself curling up in the late of night, in his favourite chair to watch TV.
So now, as I look at him, I realise that there are probably not many years left to his life. Taking his frail hands in mine, I’m thinking of the word “forgiveness”. And how we’ve both unwittingly extended it towards each other, in our own ways over the years. And that’s a good enough reason to celebrate him on Father’s Day.