90: Forgiveness and Freedom

90: Forgiveness and Freedom

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

Forgiveness and Freedom

Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.

~Paul Boese

The dream startled me so much that I woke up gasping, my hand clutching the comforter. My husband’s gentle snore and the familiar shapes in our darkened bedroom reassured me that what I’d seen wasn’t real.

Even so, the image of my father wearing a red shirt, lying on his back on my living room sofa, would not go away. Nor would the words he’d said — one short sentence that I could not forget.

The clock on the nightstand told me I needed to go back to sleep but I hesitated to close my eyes. I feared the dream might continue, that Dad would once again say, “You haven’t forgiven me yet.” Five words that made my stomach churn.

The next day, I told myself it was ridiculous to allow a dream to unsettle me so. And it was only a dream. Dad had died in 1995, so suddenly that there had been no time to say anything to him. We’d had no final moments together. In life, my father would never have worn a red shirt or a red tie, not a red anything. He would also never have asked for forgiveness.

My father had been a complicated man, and during all of my adult years, I had a love/hate relationship with him. He provided the necessities of life in my growing-up years. He was fun to be with some of the time. My three brothers and I knew he loved us, but we also knew that he could turn from loving father to a man who belittled and verbally abused us if we moved outside the lines he’d drawn. We were to believe only what he believed, there was no discussion, no difference of opinion, no respect for our thoughts. It was a love so conditional that we lived with a tiny thread of fear every day.

He verbally and emotionally abused my mother even while loving her deeply. Having to watch silently hurt me. None of us suffered physical abuse from him, but we bore the scars of the cutting words hurled at us during his flares of temper.

He raged like a bull in a Spanish bullring when I wanted to leave the Midwest and teach in California. He disowned my youngest brother because the young college student had the nerve to fall in love with someone of a different race. The bitterness I harbored against my father sat inside me like a weighty rock for many years.

When he died, I had conflicting emotions — sadness that I’d lost my father, the man who loved me, sang songs to me when I was a little girl, who made special foods to cajole me to eat. Another part of me felt only relief that I would never again have to listen to him rant and rave, nor would I have to stand by and watch as he verbally abused my mother. Along with the relief came shame that I would feel this way. I never spoke about it to my mother or my husband. Instead, I carried it with me for the next fifteen years.

The dream brought it all to the surface. All that day, whenever I passed through my living room, I saw my father in the red shirt lying on the sofa and I shivered inwardly. Why now? What made this pop up so many years later? My sensible self knew he wasn’t really there. I only imagined it.

Days, and then weeks, passed and I still had trouble looking at my sofa. No way would I sit on it! I churned inside. Why the dream? Why the red shirt? Why was he asking for my forgiveness? I couldn’t put it together, didn’t know what I should do, and it felt like a wound that refused to heal.

One afternoon, I needed a break while cleaning house, so I fixed a cup of steaming hot tea, grabbed a freshly-baked sugar cookie and sank into my favorite chair. Suddenly, Dad appeared on the sofa, and, yes, he had on that same red shirt. “You still haven’t forgiven me,” he said so softly I had to strain to hear the words.

Then began an epiphany. Instead of all the negative memories about my father that I’d harbored for so many years, I thought about the positives. My Girl Scout troop sponsored a Father-Daughter Dance and Dad escorted me, beaming with pride. He taught me to be loyal, to love my country and to believe in God. He encouraged me to go to college when our family really could not afford it.

As I sipped my tea, I remembered the wonderful support Dad gave me when my first child was born with severe birth defects. I had a vision of the secondhand bike he’d fixed up like new as a birthday gift for me. I thought about my wedding day when he’d walked me down the aisle while I held on to his strong, steady arm.

I set my cup of tea on the end table and silently forgave him for all the hurt he’d inflicted over the years. It was time to bring some balance to my memories. Besides that, I finally realized that my forgiving him would afford both of us peace of mind. What good, I asked myself, did holding a grudge all these years do? It didn’t help anyone, most of all, me. Once it was done, Dad disappeared from the sofa. I never saw him or his red shirt again.

What significance the red shirt had, I still do not know. But now, the good times about my life with Dad are remembered more than the dark ones. He came to ask my forgiveness, but the one who felt cleansed and free of bitterness turned out to be me.

~Nancy Julien Kopp

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