Forgiving Our Fathers
When a father and son are estranged, the pain can be deep. But sometimes it just takes just one person to take the first step.
Maybe I'm naïve, but I never expected that my book would include a chapter on forgiveness. I had a few arguments with my dad over the years, especially when I was in college, but they usually ended within a couple of hours. Early on, I would fight with my father from time to time. "I'm going to run away," I told him when I was eleven. His response? "Make sure you pack you gloves, because it's cold out there." Another time, when I threatened to leave home, he said, "Fine. Don't let the door hit you in the a-- on the way out."
I was startled. Was he encouraging me to leave? Whatever he meant, exactly, his use of a bad word in those more innocent times made me giggle, which lessened the intensity of the moment and may well have been his intention. From time to time I was grounded, reprimanded, or punished, but there was always an unbreakable bond and a path to reconciliation.
Growing up Catholic, I was taught repeatedly about the importance of forgiveness and repentance. Forgive us our trespasses, the Our Father says, as we forgive those who trespass against us. But it was never really necessary to apply that idea to my own family, and it never really occurred to me that some people might have to. The fact that a father and his son or daughter might go through an extended period of not speaking to each other lay outside of my experience. I know it happens, of course, people have told me that they haven't spoken to their father for twenty years, or that a big argument decades ago was never resolved. As I read the letters that came in, which included a few stories of this type, I realized how fortunate I was that none of this sounded familiar. I also realized I ought to include a chapter on forgiveness, about healing some of the ruptures that do occur, from time to time, between fathers and their children.
Quite unexpectedly, I may have played a role in one of these reconciliations. During my book tour for Big Russ & Me, a woman in St. Louis asked me to sign two books—one for her husband, the other for her son. "I'm giving a copy to each one," she said, "and I hope my son will call home now."
Later, she sent me a brief note: "I just wanted to let you know that my son did call home."
That was it, nothing more. I don't know what caused the break or exactly what healed it. But her letter meant the world to me.
Sometimes, as the letters in this chapter of my book make clear, the rift between father and child is deep, painful, and long lasting. And sometimes it just seems that way. On Capital Hill, not long ago, a man came up to me to thank me for writing a book about my dad. "After I read it," he said, "I understood my old man differently. He rarely talked to me over the years, and I always thought he didn't like me. I understood his silence as disdain, until I read that you father was also silent, and yet you love each other very much." He went on to say that he reached out to his dad, who just needed someone to jumpstart their relationship. "My dad is still pretty quiet," he told me, "but now we are really enjoying each other's company."
So often, even when the rift seems insurmountable, all it requires is for one person to take the first step. More often that not, the other person is relived—and is more than willing to reciprocate.