4. Dad the Perfectionist

4. Dad the Perfectionist

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

Dad the Perfectionist

When you forgive, you love. And when you love, God’s light shines upon you.

~Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

My dad was a perfectionist. Whatever he did had to be the best. There was no tolerance for anything else. That made it difficult for my sister and me. Our school grades were expected to be all A’s, our tests all 100’s. It didn’t happen, of course. We were ordinary kids trying to figure out the world, making mistakes and learning from them.

I was always good at English, but math was problematic for me. One night, as I struggled with the word problems assigned for homework, I asked Dad for help. He looked at the problems and started asking me questions. I didn’t know the answers right away and that annoyed him. The more he demanded that I figure it out, the more I withdrew. His annoyance quickly turned to impatience.

“You’re not dumb. How could you not know this?” he asked.

It was as if he had punched me in the stomach. I couldn’t breathe for what seemed a long time. At that moment I certainly felt dumb. I finally whimpered, “I just have trouble with math.”

Even though I still couldn’t really understand the problems, I knew it was a bad idea to continue.

“Thanks, Dad,” I said, “but I think I can do it by myself now.”

“Okay,” he said, and looked relieved as he left the room.

I cried and put away my homework. There was no point in even trying to do it after that. I never again asked for his help.

I buried the incident deep inside. But even though I chose not to focus on my dad’s words, they affected much of what I did and how I related to the world. I didn’t raise my hand in class unless I was absolutely sure I knew the answer. I wouldn’t take the lead in any group in case it would show how inept I was. I hung back from volunteering so that I wouldn’t look foolish.

This hesitancy stayed with me through high school, into college, and until I had my first child. Postpartum depression sent me for counseling. It was then that I brought out the anger I felt toward my father for his putting me in this shrinking-violet position. I was eventually able to work through it and my life changed. I became more positive and more assertive; I was enthusiastic about life at last. Best of all, I no longer felt dumb. If I didn’t know something, I could always find out instead of pretending that I knew the answer.

Many years later my father was in an assisted living facility, and my sister and I were caring for him. One of us would visit daily. He and I often sat side-by-side watching TV. He would comment on the shows, sometimes critically, but often just to make conversation. He seemed to have mellowed over the years.

One day we went out for coffee to a local shop. We were chatting about old times and I asked him if he would have done anything differently in his life.

“Yes,” he said, turning serious suddenly. “I wish I wasn’t so hard on you girls, but that was all I knew. That’s how my father was with me.”

At that moment I saw the pain that he had been carrying all those years and I knew I had to let go of whatever lingering resentment I had been holding onto.

“I forgive you, Dad,” I said. And then, because I suddenly saw that forgiveness goes both ways, I added, “I hope you can forgive me for anything I might have done to distress you.”

He looked at me across the table, surprise and love etched in his expression.

“There’s nothing to forgive,” he said.

As we finished our coffee, I realized that I finally felt peaceful in my father’s presence.

On the way home I thought of things I had done with my own children that I would now choose to undo. I hoped that they could forgive me, too.

~Ferida Wolff

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