From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

Unpaved Roads

We pardon as long as we love.

François Rochefoucauld

Dad was a large-built man who stood six-feet tall and weighed 320 pounds. His voice was loud and deep and always gave the impression that you had better not mess with him. And nobody did! When he stood there with blazing, fiery eyes and blasted you with his short temper, you were sure to know the fear of God—a fear I came to know at a very early age.

Whenever I did something wrong, there was no conversation about what I had done or any reason given to help me change my behavior—just the belt, that hard, leathery belt. Since the very first time he whipped me, I knew that God came equipped with a belt.

When Dad and his buddies got together at our house, they’d start roughhousing while Dad reminisced about the days when he was the Golden Gloves boxing champ. Whenever he’d try to take on one of the guys, they’d back away. They knew they were no match for him because no one was rougher or tougher than my dad.

I felt fortunate that he was gone most of the time. He was a heavy equipment operator for a road construction crew, and his work took him on the road for a week at a time. But when Friday night came, and I saw Dad’s car coming up the driveway, I’d run and hide. Then Mom would give him a full report about how bad I was during the week. Soon he’d yell my name and summon me to the kitchen. As he shouted in my face, the stench of alcohol and cigarettes permeated my nose and throat, nauseating me.

“I’m in no mood for this!” he yelled. “I’ve worked hard all week, and now I have to come home to this!” Then off came the belt.

What Dad didn’t realize was that this method of discipline encouraged the kind of behavior he was trying to prevent. And whenever I would call him on it, he’d get twice as mad and shout, “Don’t do as I do. Do as I say!”

This misguided form of discipline led to more problems as I grew older. And what made it worse was that I had no one to turn to. I was terrified of Dad and didn’t know what to expect from his outbursts. I vowed that when I was old enough, I would leave home and stay as far away from him as I could.

My parents eventually divorced, and I didn’t see my dad for years. My mother kept in touch with me and called one day to tell me that Dad went to the doctor and that he was very ill. I thought about what I should do or if I should do anything at all. We weren’t close. How could we be after all those things he had said and done whstrange tug at my heart that wouldn’t let up. I decided to give him aen I was younger? I didn’t even like the man! Oddly enough, I felt this phone call.

“Dad, it’s Lindy.”

“Lindy?” he said, sounding as though he was scanning his memory for all the Lindys he’d ever known.

There was a silence as I hesitated, trying to carefully choose the right words. “I heard that you weren’t feeling well and decided to give you a call.”

“The doctor says I don’t have long to live.”

“What’s wrong?”

He started to cry and muttered some words I couldn’t understand, and then he hung up the phone.

A couple of weeks passed while I thought about Dad’s situation and what role I should assume. I still hadn’t figured it out when I received another phone call from my mother informing me that he had been admitted to hospice. Indecision led to desperation. I knew what hospice meant. I didn’t want to believe that Dad was terminally ill. How much time did he have left? I had to know.

I jumped into my car and hurried over to the hospice care facility. When I got there, two nurses and the attending physician immediately consoled me. After reviewing Dad’s file, I had all the information I needed. All those years of drinking had finally taken their toll. Dad had cirrhosis of the liver, which made him susceptible to the cancer that was spreading through his entire body.

I dreaded what came next. I felt as though I didn’t belong there. What was I going to say to this man I hadn’t seen for years? I felt like this was a scene from someone else’s life, not mine. Uncertain of what I was doing, I walked toward Dad’s room, pushed by some force I didn’t understand. And even though I slowly paced my steps, I reached his room much too soon. As I peered around the doorway, he noticed I was there and told me to come in.

“Look at me, Lindy,” he said as he wept. Then he held up his arm and showed me his sagging skin. “I’m wasting away, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“I know, Dad,” I said, trying not to feel his pain.

Then I listened to him talk. He talked about my mom and how things didn’t work out. He told me that he tried to do the best that he could for me, but everything always turned out wrong.

“I love you, Lindy,” he sobbed. “I made mistakes, and I’m sorry.”

I held him in my arms as he confessed his many regrets. And even though I didn’t say it, my comforting gesture showed I forgave him.

My head was spinning after I left the hospice. All in one night I felt shock, fear, forgiveness and grief. My dad was a broken man, not the man I knew when I was growing up. Nothing could touch him then. He was the Golden Gloves champ.

My vulnerability let loose, and I began to wail like a little child. Not only did I cry for what we hadn’t had in our relationship, I cried for what we could still have if he weren’t dying. He seemed like such a changed man now and like a father I could have lived with. Now he was dying, and there wasn’t anything either of us could do about it.

But there was still time.

For the next few weeks I visited Dad every night after work. We sat and talked. I even ran errands for him and bought him a few items he wanted. I was starting to see things about him I’d never seen before. I knew the bad side, all right. But now I was starting to see the good, and we were becoming friends. But just as our friendship was starting to grow, he took a turn for the worse.

One night, when I went to visit him, the staff said they didn’t think he would last through the night. The doctor increased his morphine but it wasn’t regulated yet, and he was in considerable pain. I was told that every fifteen minutes his beeper would sound, and at this time I could push a button that would send intermittent doses of morphine through his body. I decided to stay with him through the night. Dad talked very little. And every time the beeper sounded, I pushed the button, realizing that by doing this I was also making it harder for us to communicate any longer.

Dad held on for two more days, and I was with him when he died. As I held his hand, I kissed him on the forehead and said, “It’s okay, Dad. You can go now. Grandma and Grandpa are waiting for you, and now you can build roads in heaven.”

After all, Dad was good at road construction. He paved the road and bridged the gap between us.

Linda Poehnelt

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