A conversation of forgiveness and love with my used-to-be absent father
I was a part of something really SPECIAL; really surreal. Something that took over 52 years to happen – happened…and I was there… and it was about me. It was a moment in time that I will never forget, nor will I ever take it lightly that it happened. It was one of those moments in life when you know, “something BIG is happening”.
My mom, and my dad, and I met at my request to talk about how I came to be. I grew up without my dad in my life, and never really knew the story of what happened between my parents. I had never heard them talk about their relationship.
I picked up my daddy and we fought through traffic, a lot of traffic to get to my house. We talked effortlessly the entire hour-long ride. Mom was already at my home with my husband when we arrived. We all sat in the den. Mom sat on the sofa at the window. Daddy sat on the big couch, and I sat on the ottoman in the middle.
We had small talk for a few minutes. Surprisingly, I wasn’t nervous at all, even though this was the very first time in my entire life that both of my parents were together at my house, sitting on my furniture, talking to me. Mom has been to my house countless times, but my father had never been there. You wouldn’t have known it if you were just a casual passerby. Unsuspecting folk would have thought it was a normal family just hanging out.
Mom and Dad played catch up. I don’t know when was the last time they’d seen each other; maybe a couple of years. But here they were; my two biological parents — senior citizens. Both of them are in their 70’s. Dad suffers from COPD, a chronic lung disease. He had his oxygen tank with him. Mom is getting hard of hearing. Looking at them, for a moment, I wondered if they would even remember many of the specific things I wanted to discuss from so long ago. So much anticipation had built up for me about this meeting. I wasn’t going to allow my fears of the “what if” to keep me silent, and let this just be a casual Friday hangout at my house. It was anything but casual. I would be blown away to find out they very easily recalled in great detail more than what I thought I would learn.
So, I began the conversation. At first I told them how when I called each of them individually to ask if they would be willing to tell me the story about how I came to be, both of them without hesitation said YES. And then when I asked if we could do it together with mom and dad in the same room, they said yes. Again, not even a moment of hesitation. I told them that meant a lot. They had agreed as if it was not uncommon for the three of us to be together, talking. However, it had never happened; not on my memory log; not since I was old enough to remember stuff. Their immediate, positive response was as if they had also hoped to have this talk, or maybe deep inside, like me, they also NEEDED it.
I explained that it had been on my heart for a very long time – a life time – to hear the story. I meant no disrespect to my stepmom, or anyone else. This was not about getting my parents back together. I was not interested in re-kindling a decades-old love-life I knew nothing about. What I wanted to know about was me. Right then, my daddy said it’s about “us”. They totally got where I was coming from. We all agreed, yes, this is about us. I said no matter what happens it would always be us. The two of them didn’t have any other children together so it is just us three connected in this life, in a supernatural way like no other connection in my life. No one else on the planet could say they had a combination of those two people’s looks and characteristics, but me. I needed to hear how that came to be. (It’s funny. I think my own divorce makes it clear to me how two people and their biological children are forever connected regardless of the status of the relationships.)
I had prepared a list of about 15 questions that I wanted to ask. I had that piece of paper folded there within reach; tucked under my knee. I never opened it. These questions were written on my heart. I didn’t need a cheat sheet. My parents answered each question as if they had been prepped about what would be asked.
The first question I asked was “when did they first know each other; how did you two meet?” Both of them talked about how there was no day that they were introduced. They were always around each other either at school or at church, or in the neighborhood. The community was very close knit so they grew up knowing each other, and each other’s friends and family. There weren’t many places to go, and not much to do in Charlotte back in the early 60’s. So everybody mostly stayed close. They added depth to the answer by naming so many people they knew together, and began to walk down a memory lane I’m sure neither had visited in a very long time, certainly not together. Mom threw out a name, and Daddy laughed. Dad said a name, and mom smiled. My Mom and dad had always known each other, since a very young age. In high school, they became boyfriend and girlfriend; a couple – always together. Everybody knew they were a couple, and according to them, everybody thought they would always be together. And they did too. I’ll never forget the smile and peaceful look on my dad’s and my mom’s faces as they reminisced about their young love life. It was most definitely a happy time. They both laughed when they talked about mom first dating some other guy, W.P. He lived in a different neighborhood, but went to school with them. I asked Dad if he knew him. He laughed and said, “Oh yeah”. I could tell there was a story there about how he took W.P.’s place, but we moved on.
My dad talked about church, and to my surprise, he talked about it just like my mom had always described church. Like mom, he was there ALL the time too; from Sunday morning until Sunday evening; at Sunday school, and on Wednesday evenings for Bible study. He told how he would study the Sunday school lesson so that he would know it, and could discuss it during class. It was a side of him that I had never known, or considered. Mama made reference to how as kids, they were taught to teach Sunday school. My dad’s dad was a deacon in the church. I knew full well about my maternal grandmother, and her spiritual aptitude, so there wasn’t much talk about her; it wasn’t needed. I learned that church was a very, very important part of both of my parents’ upbringing.
I asked about when they got engaged. My dad was two years older, two grades higher than mama. He had graduated high school when he proposed marriage, but mom was still in high school. With very little prompting, Daddy told the story of how he proposed: At mama’s house. He went there to ask for her hand in marriage. My uncle and a friend (who he named) was there joking around and he had to run them off because he had something serious to do. He had put a lot of thought into this proposal. Mama’s face lit up as she held up her left hand and excitedly said that he even gave her a ring. She didn’t know the proposal for marriage was coming on that day, but she most certainly wanted to marry him, and always thought that she would. She was excitedly surprised. The engagement was intentional. They were engaged for a couple of years or more before she got pregnant with me. It was a decided proposal of marriage. Not one that they were forced into. They were very much in love. Together every day.
Mom was two years out of high school when she became pregnant with me. I asked my daddy, did he tell his parents about mama’s pregnancy? He said no, “your mom’s mom told ’em.” He struggled a bit to remember the specific details, but he knew that somehow the news of my conception was told at church, in something like a testimony. My paternal grandparents heard it (along with the rest of the church), and at home, my granddaddy questioned my daddy about it. He admitted, and when asked what he was going to do, my daddy told his father he was going to have to get a good job. He said it the way a real man takes care of his family. He said that and I felt his heart wrap me up. I might have come earlier than hoped, but I was no mistake! My parents LOVED each other. I was conceived in deep love! My daddy was not troubled that mama was pregnant. It was because of their relationship and their plans for a future together. And he accepted me coming into the world with plans to protect me and take care of me. This was something I never knew before this day. I heard my father say from his own lips that he had planned to nurture me. It melted me. Those words were priceless. They were words I had never heard spoken to me or about me coming from the man who created me. Here he sat, telling me the story of when he first knew that he was going to have me, and when asked about the future involving me, his answer was without any doubt, “I am going to take care of her”. Those words broke through all of the walls of built up feelings of denial and abandonment I had lived behind. It crushed to the ground the ongoing questions I’ve always had swirling around in my head of “WHY!?” “Why didn’t he love me?” “Why did he leave me?” “Does he care about me?”
According to mom, she was always at the my dad’s parents’ home, like every day. She said especially after she got pregnant. They loved my mom, and loved the relationship she and my dad had. Mom was always close to my dad’s siblings, especially my aunts. My mom said it took my paternal grandma a little while to come around, but she did accept her as a part of their family.
I asked if my daddy was around when I was born. YES! They said it without any doubt; in unison. They were very much a couple. Engaged and happy. Mom told how she and my daddy had to stand before the church to ask for forgiveness for their sin. The pastor called them out. She was called up first. The preacher then said she didn’t sin by herself, and called my daddy up too. That means he was still in church too. They owned up. They stood together in front of the church and were absolved from the fact that they had a baby out of wedlock. That was refreshing to hear. It had to be humiliating for the both of them, but they stood strong through that together.
Some time before I was two years old, my dad got drafted into military service. He was drafted into the Army, but when he went to fill out their paperwork, he saw a soldier in his dress blues. The soldier told them he didn’t want to be in the Army. He told him how to enlist in the Marines. My daddy enlisted in some type of buddy program. He took a test and became a United States Marine. Dad told us where all he was stationed. Mama said the names of the places in unison with him. She told how he wrote her letters and sent her money for me. And then my daddy got sent to Vietnam. He talked, with his eyes shut tight about how awful his time was in Vietnam; how he was wounded, and how ALL the people in his troop were killed except him. He told how he was wounded twice, and spent two years in Japan learning how to walk again. My daddy told how when he first got to the war, the men around him would cry out in fear for their mamas as bullets whizzed by their heads. He was confused about that, knowing that their mothers couldn’t do anything for them way over there. He called on God to help him. He also told how the doctors were amazed at how fast he was healing when he was wounded; he said they said “right before their eyes”. He told them it was God! It felt so good to hear my daddy giving God praise. It broke my heart to hear him talk about that awful place, and what he went through. I pointed out how he has lived through so much, through all of that, and has out-lived so many people, and has lived to be an old man. He said that’s why now he calls people his “acquaintances”, because all of his friends are dead and gone. I said he’s lost so many people, he’s forgotten who all is gone. He started naming his friends who have died, almost as if to say he still remembers them all. Mama helped call out names. It was a lot of names. It was a touching moment.
Mama told how for six longs months of his time in Vietnam they didn’t know where he was. That was during a time when the Red Cross would notify families of injuries and death of their soldier-men. It was long before email, cell phones and our current information super highways. It was during those awful months of no word that my mom relied on the strength of faith and family. My parents were still a couple when he returned from the war. We didn’t dwell on this part, but he came back a LOT different. I know from bits and pieces, and stories I’ve heard from him and others that he came back addicted to heroin, and a very damaged, empty soul. My dad described it and said that Vietnam messed him up. Mama couldn’t marry him like that. I was around 4 or so when they broke up. They had an argument. Mama hit him with a spatula, he tells, and made him leave. She threw her engagement ring into a field across from her house. It was over because he was dating the woman who is now his wife, to whom he’s been married for over 45+ years.
I told my dad, right there in front of my mother, that mom had never, ever said one bad word about him in all the years of my life. She did not teach me to hate him, even when it would have been easy to do just that. My whole life, she had been nothing but encouraging to me when it came to my struggles with our relationship. I referred to how so often mothers teach their children to despise their absent fathers. Not mom. She was a vital part in this day (this meeting) ever happening. She is a strong woman, who laid aside the breakup of her first (if not only) true love for the love of her child. She let bygones be bygones. She was always supportive; always nurturing trying to foster the start of what was actually happening that day, right before our eyes.
My daddy said how even though he wasn’t physically around me, he was always aware of what I was doing, or what was going on with me at every stage of my life. He said my aunts and others would tell him. He said he asked about me often. He referred sadly to some times when I had big moments in my life that he heard about them, he was sitting in jail and was missing it. He told me how much he wanted to be there. I knew what he had felt. I had the same feeling. We were connected in this way: both missing each other deeply. Mama told of how I was so very close to my dad’s family growing up. How spoiled I was by them, and everybody else. How much my granddaddy loved me. I told of the regret of not staying connected with that side of me. Daddy told of how he would always talk about me to his buddies. He told of one particular time he was at a liquor house and was lying telling about things we had done together. I told him that whatever he lied about, I had fantasized about doing the same things. My father lowered his voice and was almost speaking in a whisper as he told me how much he loves me. It was then that I realized that this meeting really was for all three of us. It wasn’t just about me and what I needed to hear. My dad had suffered through his own 52+ years of misery. We stood up and wrapped our arms around each other. I cried like a baby. He held me and I held him. I never wanted to let go. It was a feeling of security I was void of. It would take a while to fill that tank up! He said he was sorry and asked me to forgive him. He said it several times. Every time he said it, I told him I forgave him. It was pure forgiveness without reserve. The forgiveness matched the apology. He said “I’m sorry” from a deep place inside himself. I know because that’s where my forgiveness came from.
He said “I’m sorry” from a deep place inside himself. I know because that’s where my forgiveness came from.
I cried from a deep, entombed place within my soul. They were sobs and tears from way down, from way back. At that moment, I was crying for my 8-year old self and my 10- and 13-year old self. And my 17-, and 22-, and 32-year old self. I cried for every moment of my life that I had lived void of my most important parent. I cried for all the times I wouldn’t allow myself to cry because I had to be strong. I cried for the times when there was no understanding about why he wasn’t there for me. I cried for the millions of times I felt unloved by my father. All the while he held me in his arms and let all of that come up and out. I was also crying for him. This poor old soul who had suffered in silence too. He had experienced hell on earth in Vietnam, lost all semblances of who he was. Lost his dearest friends. Returned home to find that he couldn’t face his former life as himself because so much of who he had been was left on the battlefield in a foreign, strange country.
Leading up to this meeting with my parents, I really thought it was only about me and what I needed, but each one of us needed to have that conversation. It was healing for all of us. My mom needed to see me in a healthy relationship with my dad. My dad needed to know that I forgave him. I needed to know that both of my parents really did love me being born. It gave me life to hear that I was wanted and loved and there were plans for my father to take care of me and raise me. I had known all along that Vietnam took away the father I needed, but I hadn’t heard the story that lead up to it.
I love my dad. I love him SO much. It’s a feeling of love that’s indescribable. It’s different from any other kind of love I’ve felt for anyone else. I told my father I was so thankful to God that he spared his life through all that he went through so that we could have that moment then to say all that was said and to make it all better. Someone must have prayed for him — for us to get to that day. I’m forever grateful. It was an extraordinary BIG moment in my life. We talked well over an hour. When it was done, I felt more alive than I had ever felt in my life. There were so many moments of validation, and worth, and value. My self-esteem and confidence were shored up. All those awful feelings I had suppressed about how I came to be were exercised and killed.
I’m healed. We are whole. My mom, and my dad, and I are a unit. I pray that God shows me how to make my daddy a constant in my life. I’m going to be intentional about my relationship with him. It will never be the same again. ❤