39. How to Heal a Family

39. How to Heal a Family

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

How to Heal a Family

…and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,…

~Gospel of Matthew

Once upon a time I was married and everything seemed wonderful. Until it wasn’t. My husband and I went from love to separation. It was a difficult time.

Our custody agreement allowed me to move back to my hometown with our son. My ex-husband would get holiday and summer visits. Years passed and my ex and I never talked. He’d call and ask for our son. I’d pass the phone over and that was it.

As time went on, our son told me that his dad had suggested living with him for a year. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea and resisted. However, our son mentioned it several more times until it hit me that maybe he hoped I’d say yes. I thought about what it would be like as the parent with only occasional access, and I realized I could do this difficult thing for our son’s sake. Hiding my heartache, I told him he could live with his dad if that’s what he really wanted. He looked at me like I’d suggested he live on the moon, firmly replying: “No Mom, I want to live with you.” I felt something rush out of me, a fear I’d held for far too long, and realized something had to change in this broken family.

I wrote a letter to his dad, forgiving him both a monetary debt and past hurts, adding that I hoped he’d forgive me too. I wrote that I wished to be at our son’s graduation, marriage and special occasions, asking if he wanted that, and noted that it wasn’t likely if the cold war continued. I acknowledged that he might not be ready to forgive but that my door would remain open. As that letter dropped into the mailbox, so did my feelings against my ex. I knew then that it didn’t matter if he forgave me; that was his choice. But I had freed myself by forgiving him.

I wish I could say the situation resolved within the month. However, years passed with no response to the letter. Other challenging events occurred that indicated my ex wasn’t yet on the reconciliation path. But those issues didn’t bother me as they once would have.

Then one day he called, and I heard him say my name for the first time in years. I offered to get our son, but he stopped me, saying he had called for me. I was shocked yet thrilled. I’d waited so long for this and it felt like the next step toward fixing what we’d broken. We chatted about our child for a half hour and I thanked him for calling, recognizing that he cared as much about our son as I did.

As the call ended, the office door swung open. In rushed our son, who’d overheard my side of the conversation. With an incredulous look on his face, he asked, “Was that Dad?” I nodded and he threw himself into my arms, hugging me for all he was worth. I realized then just how hard our delay in forgiveness had been on our young son, who’d shown such a happy face to the world. I spent the next few years apologizing to him (until he begged me to stop).

Now, long before our son’s graduation, something so serious happened that it brought my ex across the country to where we lived. Our son needed open-heart surgery. Family members from both sides joined us and we met at Children’s Hospital at dawn on the day of his surgery. It was our first time together since our son entered primary school. The meeting was cordial, with our son’s huge courage and excellent sense of humour helping everyone through the next hour. When it was time for him to go into pre-op, the surgeon asked if he was ready. “Cut me, Doc,” was his response. He’d already asked for the Harry Potter cut.

Despite this, it wasn’t easy saying goodbye to our son, not knowing if we’d see him again. He was wheeled away while the hospital staff escorted us to separate waiting rooms—one for his dad’s side of the family, one for mine.

The procedure was to take eight hours. After a few hours, I went to a nearby church, inviting my ex’s family to come along. They did, and though we sat in separate pews praying for the success of this dangerous surgery, it still felt like we were getting closer.

We happened to be in the same waiting room when the door opened and the surgeon walked in several hours later. The moment seemed suspended in time while we waited for him to speak. With a brisk nod, he said: “He made it through surgery—it went well.” My heart could have exploded with joy at this news and I fervently thanked God.

My ex and I were allowed into post-op where we learned that the next twenty-four hours were critical. If our son made it through that time, his chances of living would improve exponentially each day. It was difficult to see him lying there with a tube down his throat and several intravenous drips and high-tech monitoring gadgets attached to him in various places. The data from these flashed onto machines and computer screens behind his bed. Suddenly something went wrong. An alarm sounded, and my ex and I were pulled out of the way as the doctor and nurses rushed to our son’s bedside. I felt numb with fear, my throat closing up and my body tightening into a knot.

“How much blood did he get?” the surgeon snapped, his face registering deep concern. Someone yelled, “Two pints!”

“Give him the third!” came the command. Instantly another bag filled with blood, one of three I’d donated over the course of several weeks, was inserted into the intravenous line. The surgeon carefully watched the screen that had first raised the alarm. He finally relaxed as it began to register that the most precious heart in the world to me was beating more steadily. He turned to us, explaining that usually only two of the three pints kept ready for this type of surgery were necessary. Our son’s case was the exception.

I suddenly become conscious that my ex and I had been clinging to each other throughout this crisis. In that moment it didn’t matter who had failed whom, but only that our son’s parents were there for him. We looked at each other and hugged, a genuine hug of caring and joy that our son was alive. In those brief, terrifying moments, our broken family was finally healed.

~Cecilia Heather MacDonald

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