96: To Forgive Is to Receive

96: To Forgive Is to Receive

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

To Forgive Is to Receive

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.

~Lewis B. Smedes

I don’t know if it’s really possible to get over the effects of childhood sexual abuse, but I’ve spent the past fifty-eight years trying.

In those years, I’ve learned a lot about the healing process. For example, I’ve learned that the more you say it out loud, the easier it becomes to talk about. Saying it out loud to other people, now that is a whole different ball game. The response they give you is never the one you wanted or needed.

The very first response was from my mother. “My God, he’s ruined you for life!” was NOT what I had hoped to hear. It is emblazoned on my mind like a brand, identifying me as one of the “soiled” ones who must fight a lifetime fight to believe we are worthy of respect, love and intimacy.

Other responses—pity, shock, anger, and attempts at relating to our pain—just magnify our shame. Although the shame is not rightfully ours, we clutch it close like an old familiar friend. Then there are those “pull up your bootstraps” people, the ones who tell you to just get over it and move on. They go on to give you advice like, “Forget about it. It happened a long time ago.” Or, “The trials and turmoil in our lives make us stronger.” Perhaps they’re right and maybe that’s how they would handle that kind of trauma... but I doubt it.

Through all the therapy sessions, support groups, survival workbooks, looking for my “inner child,” and countless recommendations from the well-intentioned “novices,” there was one piece of advice that angered me more than any other. It was one simple, yet very powerful word: “Forgive.” Someone told me that in forgiving, I would find healing.

Forgive? You’ve GOT to be kidding! Forgive him for betraying me, for hurting me like no one else ever could, for elevating his evilness to even higher levels with my little sister? Forgive myself for letting it happen... to me and to her? Forgiving means excusing the transgression and saying to the person who wronged you that you are okay with what they did, right? Forgiveness was simply not an option.

I spent many, many years hating him, avoiding him, punishing him in as many subtle ways as I could, and telling myself that being related to him by blood did not make him my father. As he aged, I imagined his death, and the freedom from fear and shame it would surely bring me. I even wondered if I would attend his funeral and whether I would cry with relief or find pleasure in silently saying to him, “Now you can’t hurt me or anyone else ever again.”

Almost five years ago, we got the news. Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. It had metastasized, spreading to nearly all his vital organs, brain, and bones. There were no treatment options. He was dying and he was alone. I confess that at the time, I felt a twinge of satisfaction at the thought that his ultimate punishment would be intense suffering and isolation. How appropriate that seemed.

I had intended from the beginning to remain detached. I didn’t visit or call him while he was still living in his apartment. The youngest brother and sister of the six of us took on all the responsibilities of his affairs and health care. It was for them that I offered financial assistance to help cover their travel and lost work time. It was for them I went to help clean out his apartment when he was moved to a nursing home. I had still not decided whether to visit him at the nursing home when I pulled into the apartment complex and parked my car.

As we sorted through his personal effects, something happened to all of us. The man we thought had turned his back on us had pictures of all his children in their younger days on his walls. Photos of his fondest childhood memories were tucked away in treasure boxes. The man we thought did not believe in God had religious artifacts displayed throughout his home. And, the man we thought didn’t have a heart had saved mementos of special life events and the people he cherished. It was only during those moments that I could look past the “monster” to see the “daddy” I had once adored. When we finished cleaning the apartment, I followed my brothers and youngest sister to the nursing home.

He couldn’t disguise his surprise at seeing me. His drawn and tired face lit up and a smile broke as he said, “Hi, Sis.” He was never a very pleasant man and the cancer in his brain had made him erupt into yelling fits that brought both his younger children to tears. On this day, however, it was obvious he was trying very hard to be on his best behavior. My brother said it was because I was there.

Being true to myself, I kept my distance from him. At one point he said to us, “I know I wasn’t a very good father.” I couldn’t disagree with that revelation, so I said nothing to dispute it or to make him feel better. On the drive home, it suddenly hit me... those words were the closest he could come to an apology, something I never expected to hear. As insufficient as they seemed when he said them, those words had opened—just a tiny bit—a door I thought had been closed forever.

When the call came that he was expected to pass at any time, I wasn’t sure how to approach my middle sister who had suffered the most at his hand. Although she too had been helping our younger siblings from a distance, she was unable to bear the pain of facing him. I think it was her sense of responsibility to us that made her agree to go with me to be at his deathbed.

She and I had talked in the past about the traumas we shared, but I don’t think I really heard her when she said the only memories she had of him were as the monster, not as a dad. For the first time, I shared with her the good memories I had of a man who got down on the floor with his sons to assemble the Christmas train set, who took his kids fishing on weekends, who taught them how to build things, who made a beautiful rocking swan for her when she was a toddler, and who doted over each child when they were born. We talked and talked... and cried.

When we arrived, the nurses told us it seemed he was waiting for something or someone. My sister and I looked at each other with a mutual knowledge of what he was waiting for. As we stood on either side of him, each holding a hand, we saw how vulnerable and small and scared he was... just like we had been. It was in that moment we had to choose whether to hurt him as he had hurt us or to prove ourselves to be decent and worthwhile human beings. Neither of us could tell him what he needed to hear—that would be a lie—but we both told him to go in peace, and we meant it. He quietly took a last breath and slipped away.

In freeing him, we had begun to free ourselves. In opening the door to forgiveness, we had finally and honestly begun to heal.


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