How could I forgive him for hitting me?
It was a rainy, chilly Friday in late September of last year. I told my business partner that I needed to take the day off before I headed up into the mountains west of Denver. I wanted to see the bright yellow Aspens at Kenosha pass and spend some time journaling.
When I got up to the top of the mountain pass, I discovered that nearly all of the aspen trees had already shed their leaves. I was a little late to the party, but maybe it was all for the best because the area was quietly peaceful.
I took a moment to reflect over my life. I traced my journey back to my experience of growing up Amish-Mennonite with a controlling, abusive father. I had no idea that life could be different than it was at that time for me. I thought about the culture shock of being excommunicated at 21-years-old and the resulting years of confusion during my 20s.
Coming back to the present moment, I relished my freedom to be the woman I've become through my unique journey. I enjoyed the bright yellow leaves on the trees around me. Their season was changing and so was my own. I decided to keep driving on to a little town beyond the pass.
A SURPRISE VISIT TO SEE MY DAD
As I drove along, I remembered that my dad was building a summer house for someone just beyond the town that I was driving to. I called my brother to get the address for where he was working and drove right through town to climb yet another mountain to surprise my dad.
Nervous jitters started taking over as my car bumped along. What was I doing? Would I regret this?
The moment I pulled up to the job site, I felt everything inside of me stop jittering when I saw the huge smile that split my dad's face after he recovered from his shock over seeing me. I felt my eyes growing misty when he hugged me. I could tell he was emotional, too.
Since it was nearly lunchtime, we got back into my car and we went out to lunch. I thought about how weird it felt to be the adult in the driver's seat as we made our way back to town. I thought about how weird it was that I am already 30 and only now spending alone time with my dad for the first time. He told me interesting historical facts about the town while we drove. He suggested a restaurant that serves up good steak. We parked and went inside.
At one point I realized I was still holding my breath, but I slowly started to relax after we sat down and ordered our food. Our conversation was flowing easily and I discovered that I was thoroughly enjoying myself.
And then it happened. The past came up. It was standing there like a big Belgian draft horse in the room but I didn't dare look at it.
"When we lived in Michigan, that's when I couldn't stand you. Sometimes I just had to walk away, you made me so mad. Then one day I hit you really hard across the face. " He stopped talking.
I didn't say anything for a moment. My fork stayed poised in mid-air. That incident wasn't the worst thing that had happened during my growing up years, but I remember it so well, like it happened yesterday. I was 15 years old and I had blacked out that day from the blow.
"I remember that," I finally said. I wasn't sure if I should look at him but I did. He had a clear look in his eyes, like he was fully present this time. I saw the regret in his eyes and I swallowed. He didn't say anything else, but he didn't have to. I knew he was sorry that he hit me. We just sat there as an understanding passed between us, from a broken father to his daughter who is now a mother.
I spent three whole hours alone with my dad that day for the first time in my adult life. We left the small mountain town diner and drove up to Hoosier pass to see a lake where he likes to go fishing.
He told me wild stories that I'd never heard before about my grandparents, his parents. He told me about his own home life. He told me about how he watched his mom lunging at his dad with a butcher knife and how his dad picked her up and threw her across the room. He was 4 years old. He remembers the sound of his mom's body hitting the wall and falling to the floor. He told me about more things that I don't want to mention here.
Suddenly I began to understand that my dad did his best when he raised me and my siblings. My brothers experienced broken bones from the beatings they got and he knocked me out plenty of times, but he never hit our mother.
When I left the mountain that day, a part deep inside of me suddenly broke open and I began to sob both happy and sad tears. My weeping became audible and I pulled over by the side of the road when I couldn't see anymore. Deep down, I'm still just a little girl that is looking for a dad who will protect her. That afternoon, my dad had given my dignity back to me.
COMING FACE TO FACE WITH THE PAIN OF MY PAST
For reasons that I don't need to go into here, I had spent over 4 years of not speaking to my dad with the exception of seeing him at the two funerals of both of his parents. Because of the past, I had to draw some clear boundaries with my dad. Those boundaries gave me much needed time and space to find healing.
Today I understand that my dad may never be some type of fatherly ideal out of a fairytale, but he's my dad. Grief and life have changed him. The first time we came to face to face after all those years was the moment after my brother's sudden death two years ago. There we both were — he with both of his earthly parents gone and his oldest (and favorite) son gone and divorced from my mom. And there I was — a divorced, heartbroken woman who was still in the fresh shock of denial that my rock, my brother was gone. I looked at my dad and no longer saw a monster but a human, broken man that needs love. No matter what has happened, he is my dad and I'm his firstborn girl. Something changed between us in that moment.
We have since begun to navigate the awkward journey of reconnecting. None of this is easy or comfortable.
My soul's laying bare. In this process, I haven't been sure what is happening inside of me. All I know is that it feels scary and leaves me feeling like open roadkill on an abandoned country road over and over again. It is my choice to be in this place. In the past when I've been hurt, it always hit me out of nowhere and I didn't have a choice about whether I would be hurt or not. This time, I have all the power to pull my sticky entrails together and jump up off the road and stop taking part in this process. I have the choice to stop feeling. I have the choice to quit taking another phone call from my dad. I have the choice to not believe him again. But I've made my choice to stay out there in the open, to trust again, to open up, to be willing to look like an idiot and get hurt again if that's how all of this ends up.
I don't know what will happen next, but here's how I'm looking at it. This story already has a "happy ending". The more I get to know my dad, the more I understand about myself — both good and bad. I realize that things could change to put my dad and I at impassible odds once again, so I’m learning to appreciate the good moments I have with him for whatever they are right in that moment. You see, I don’t “need” anything from him so I can receive good moments as a free gift.
I hope my story gives you hope for a big win in your own life after difficult losses. I hope it gives you a reason to hope that a painful relationship with a parent can be healed to at least some extent. I hope you get to know yourself and make the boundaries in your life and business that help you thrive. I hope you take the time to heal and repair your heart, without needing to explain yourself to anyone. And then I hope you're brave enough to be vulnerable after you've been hurt because that is how you'll grow and heal even more.