My mother and I were sorting through some old photographs when we came across one of my father carrying me as a toddler. It wasn’t an especially memorable picture, but what she said to me next was.
“You know, your father used to rush home from work every night to see you. He’d talk to you as he gave you a bath, and tell me afterwards that even if he’d had a bad day at work, you always made his troubles go away.”
I’ve never doubted that my dad (or my mum, for that matter) loves me. But her words stirred something in me, and made me realise how truly blessed I am to never have to grow up without a father in my life.
I know I’m one of the lucky ones. Some of my own friends, independent, well-adjusted individuals, have had to grapple with heartbreaking family strife since childhood.
My friend Sarah* (not her real name) has always struggled with her resentment over a father who strayed in his marriage when her mother had cancer and, years later, put her personal safety at risk when his gambling addiction caught up with him. That was the last straw for Sarah, who has not spoken to her father in the last four years.
It made me wonder: Can a child ever forgive his or her parent for the childhood emotional trauma he or she had inflicted?
When a father cheats, lies, and gambles
For Sarah, now in her 30s, the road to forgiveness is long and trying, with no end in sight – yet.
“When my mother’s cancer relapsed, instead of being a supportive husband, he veered in a whole other direction. This was also when we found out about his gambling problem, because loan sharks turned up at our place looking for my father (who had moved out by then). Mum had to fend them off while fighting cancer and working through their divorce proceedings. In my mind, I think I’ve always blamed him for her death – by causing her unnecessary stress and triggering the relapse.”
When Sarah was nine, her mother lost the battle with cancer. Together with her elder sister and younger brother, they moved in with their guardian. Her father later fought for custody and won, but the siblings were separated: Sarah and her sister moved in with their paternal grandmother, while her brother lived with their aunt.
“Even then, we never saw our father. He would take us out on weekends and tell us that next time we’d all live together, that he’d already bought a place for us to live in. But it never materialised. And to three young kids whose biggest hope was to live together as a family again, the betrayal stung.”
When her elder sister turned 21, she applied for a flat with their father as a co-owner, and the siblings were reunited. They had grown accustomed to living independently by then, but Sarah admitted that she never really gave up hope on her father coming around.
Until the day – in 2012 – she returned home to find paint splashed all over her door.
That’s when she learnt that her father’s old habits died hard and, worse, he’d risked his children’s safety by giving the address of their home to loan sharks – when he didn’t even live there. Some weeks later, it happened again.
“I was furious and terrified. When I asked him about it, he denied that he’d borrowed money from loan sharks. My sister had married and moved out by then, but my brother and I were forced to leave our home. I even had to change my mobile number because the loan sharks began calling me up. Yet, not once did he express concern for our safety, nor showed any remorse. That was the last straw for me and I decided to cut him out of my life.”
A few months ago, however, Sarah received word that her father had suffered a mild stroke. Hearing about him brought back the pain of her suffering, especially as she tried working through her feelings of guilt and anger.
When I asked if she intended to visit him in hospital, she answered firmly in the negative. Still, I could hear the conflict in her voice.
“When I first heard the news, I was concerned about the seriousness of his condition, but that was it. My dad has had many years to try and do his part as a father, but he didn’t bother reaching out. Now that I’m married and a parent myself, I can’t understand why anyone would do what he did.”
So, I guess this means you’d never forgive your father, I assumed.
Her answer surprised me: It wasn’t a ‘no’. She added quietly: “I didn’t visit him in the hospital, but that doesn’t mean I won’t ever forgive him.”
In that case, I asked, is there anything you’d ask him that could give you some answers or help ease the anguish?
Sarah’s composure wavered, as she ventured tentatively: “Whether he’d ever…” and stopped.
I finished the sentence for her. “Whether he’d ever really loved you?”
She nodded, fighting to keep her emotions under control.
After this sorrowful conversation with Sarah, my heart grew heavy. I had never felt more keenly for her plight where before, I would have simply given her platitudes about the benefits of forgiveness and letting go (“Forgive and live!”, “This too shall pass!”), I found myself acknowledging that if I were in her shoes, I probably wouldn’t forgive my father so easily, too.
But I really wanted to know: Is there no way to mitigate childhood anger and resentment built over time?
I was making my way to talk to another friend, Maureen, and I fervently hoped that she’d have something positive to share in this respect.
For Maureen, she’d had to cope with a father who left the family without a word and who, 20 years later, returned to her life. With much effort, she moved past her pain to forgive him, and now takes care of him in his old age.
When a father abandons his family
Now in her 40s, Maureen’s earliest memories of her father was that he was an absent one. Even when he was home, he was often in his own world; he seldom contributed to the household, and hardly interacted with his only daughter. When she was 16, Maureen’s father upped and left, and that was the last the family saw of him.
For the next 20 years, he made no attempts at contacting his family and Maureen took it that her family nucleus now consisted only of herself and her mum. It was only when she turned 36 and wanted to buy a place that she realised she needed to look for her father and obtain his signature to process the sale.
“When my father asked to split the proceeds from the sale of the flat, I was very upset. He’d never contributed to the household in all the time we were living together, so how could he ask for money now?”
Later, her father explained that he had fallen on hard times and the house he had bought with her mother was supposed to provide him a roof over his head if he were unable to work one day. Maureen then reassured him that she would provide for him, so he agreed not to force the issue.
From then on, her father would get in touch only if he needed financial help. It was four years ago, when she received a call from the hospital saying that her father was suffering from diabetes and would need 24-hour care in a nursing home, that she realised she needed to start making future plans to include her father.
“Ironically, that was when I faced my biggest struggles, and not when my dad first left. Of course, I was devastated, and I felt abandoned and rejected then. But over time, I had come to accept that my father was gone. So, why has he suddenly returned now that he’s sick? And why do I have to look after him when he never stuck around in the past?”
Maureen’s voice broke as she spoke, a sure sign that her pain is still very much present, even though she’s on her way to making her peace with it.
In her efforts to try and forgive her father, she sought comfort in her religion. As a Christian, she prayed for patience and deliverance, and recalled how she would offer assistance to underprivileged strangers, so why not her own father?
She also attended a healing ministry, recommended by friends, where she learnt to acknowledge and work through some deep-seated childhood emotional pain.
“During the session, I was asked to recall good memories of my time with my father. I went home and dug out old childhood pictures, and found that there were photos of me as a child taken by my dad. That’s when I started remembering that he would take me fishing on weekends, or to the movies. I must have blocked them out when he left, maybe as a way to help me cope with the loss when I was younger.”
Her voice softened noticeably, as she dwelt on the few precious memories she had recovered from her past.
Even so, the road to forgiveness hasn’t been smooth-sailing. For one thing, looking after his needs and wants at the nursing home has been an exercise in frustration.
“He’s old (almost 70) and sick, and he’s got his quirks. One minute the nursing home is calling me regarding his unruly conduct and then next, they’re telling me that he nearly burnt down the nursing home when he wanted to microwave food in the middle of the night and it caught fire! He definitely did not make it easy to care for him, much less forgive him.”
And although Maureen can now talk about her exasperation in a calm, almost wry manner, she didn’t always cope with this much equanimity. In the beginning, she could not even bear to have physical contact with her father. Now, she’s able to support him on his walks, and appreciates getting to know him better.
“From the time we’ve spent together, I’m learning things about him that I never knew – what he likes to eat or do, and buying him colouring books and seeing that he’s pretty good at art.”
But here’s the best part: She no longer hates him and admits that, in fact, she’s even starting to love him, little by little.
“When I decided to forgive my father, I didn’t think that it would be something that could benefit me as well. Now, I can see how it has helped me learn to let go of the past and genuinely care for him. I’m finally able to say that I do forgive my father and I hope that one day, I’ll be able to tell him personally.”
While Maureen’s story isn’t what you’d call happily-ever-after, I did leave our coffee date with a hopeful heart after seeing how some broken relationships can be repaired with lots of patience, courage, and some help from the divine.
And even if no one’s quite ready yet, as is the case with Sarah and her father, it’s nice to know that forgiveness isn’t entirely out of the question either.
As for me, I’m going to go give my old man a hug now.