Janie’s father was dying, and his time was short. Janie and her mother shared caregiving responsibilities, something Janie admitted she did begrudgingly, not to help her father, but to give her mom a hand. “She’s too frail to do everything, so I’m stuck with the job.” She stood folding towels, shaking and snapping them with silent vengeance, sometimes folding, then unfolding, then hurling them back into the laundry basket. “My brothers are ‘too busy’ to help. I’d like to know what’s up with that?”
“When I first found out he was sick, that he was dying, I thought, ‘serves him right’, ” she told me. “As Dad became sicker, this nagging thing inside of me kept going round and round in my head, things about my relationship with him.” She paused for a moment, then added with an ironic tone, “If you could call it a relationship.” Her chin stiffened and jutted out, as she raised her head, keeping her gaze from contacting mine. She looked randomly around the room, at the floor, the ceiling, the walls, out the window. She looked at everything in the room, except at her father, who lay in a hospital bed which had been set up in the living room. He was non-responsive, most of the time, and when he did speak, his words were garbled and hard to understand. At the moment, he lay motionless, and appeared to be in a deep sleep.
“I guess it doesn’t matter what I say, because he can’t hear me anyway.” She let out a derisive laugh. “Even if he could hear me, he wouldn’t.”
“Perhaps he can hear you, Janie. Perhaps he can hear you, but simply can’t respond.” I spoke gently, as I reached out to touch her hand, which she jerked back away from mine. “Perhaps he can understand you now, at a depth to which he was never able before.” I paused for an eternal second of silence, then added, “Maybe now is the time to tell him what you need him to know. It’s not too late. Not til he takes that last breath.”
“Good. He needs to hear this, then. But this time, he can’t tell me to shut-up or go away. Here’s my chance to give him a dose of his own, nasty medicine.” Her mouth twisted into a crooked grin. “Dad never understood anything. He didn’t even try. He was a selfish man, with a quick, harsh, unpredictable temper. I never knew what to expect when I came home from school.” She licked her dry lips, and asked for a glass of water. “He’d make fun of me in front of my friends, in front of everyone, and try to make it sound like a joke. But it wasn’t a joke. He meant it. And he knew I got it. I hated him for that.” She was silent for a moment, “Oh, but not my brothers! They were wonderful, could do no wrong. All he had for them was praise, never a word of criticism about them!“
Janie took a swallow of water, then stood and paced the room, avoiding the hospital bed. “If this is a time for honesty, for forgiveness, for healing, then I guess it’s a bit late for him, isn’t it? Because he can’t say he’s sorry now. It’s too late, and I wouldn’t believe him, anyway. He was a cruel man, who got great joy out of hurting other people. And that is what I will remember about him.” For the first time, she turned her head in his direction, and shot him a wincing glare. “And I hope you heard that, Dad.”
Janie’s mom, who had been standing quietly in the hallway, listening to the conversation, stepped into the room. Janie spoke. “Well, Mom, it’s true. He wasn’t there when I needed him, he criticized me no matter what I did, he used me as the butt of his jokes ~~” Janie plopped into a chair across the room from the hospital bed and buried her face in her hands.
“May I tell you some things, Janie?”
Janie shrugged. “If you think you must. But if it’s to chastise me for my feelings, I don’t want to hear it.”
“Most people do the best they can with the information they have at the time, Janie.” Her mother’s voice was soft, yet firm.
Janie didn’t look up.
“You know the time your dad missed your dance recitals?”
“He’d rather go out for a beer and play pool with his bar friends,” Janie countered.
“Just let me speak for a minute, Janie. You dad wasn’t at your dance recitals because he had to take a second job. He was too proud to tell you and your brothers that. Often, he rushed to the school auditorium after his second job, even if it meant he could only catch the last ten minutes of your recital: he stood in the back, because there were no seats left, and he didn’t want to disrupt your moment. Remember how he was so critical of the boys you wanted to date? That was because he cared about you and didn’t want you to be hurt. Remember how quick his temper was at times? That’s because he was so tired at the end of most days after working for 18 hours, seven days a week. Although he was tired to the bone, he would sit in that chair you were sitting in just now, waiting for you to come home from a date, just to make sure you were okay. You never knew it, because he’d sit quietly until you went on up to your room, then he’d follow, careful not to step on that one squeaky stair that might give him away. You know that money you thought he was spending on beer and pool? That money went into an account for you and your brothers’ college funds, so you each might have an easier life than he had.”
Janie’s hands dropped from her face, and tears began to stream down her face. Her shoulders sagged.
“You know why he was, as you say ‘so critical of you’? That was the only way he knew to push you to do the best you could. He wasn’t very good with words, I know that. But he did the best he could. We’re not given an instruction book, Janie, when we have children. God knows I’ve made plenty of mistakes. And I hope when my time comes to die, you will have it in your heart to forgive me for those mistakes.”
Janie sat for several minutes, crying. Hesitantly, she rose from the chair and walked softly to her father’s bedside. She took his hand and cupped it in hers. His hand was cold, and blue. She looked at his face, and thought she saw his eyelashes flutter.
“I guess there’s plenty of times I’ve given you both grief over the years, wrong decisions I’ve made, sleepless nights when you’ve wondered if I was okay, when I didn’t have the courtesy to call you. And I’ve never asked for your forgiveness. I’ve never even thought about it.” Janie kissed her father’s cheek, and whispered in his hear, “Please forgive me, Dad. I didn’t know. I was just doing the best I could with the information I had at the time. And I know you were, too.”
Janie turned to her mom and hugged her. “Thanks, Mom. I just never thought about the truth that if we ever expect to be forgiven by others, we need to be willing to forgive them, first. You’re so soft-spoken, but when you have something to say, it’s usually so wise.”
When Janie’s father died, she stood at the memorial service next to her mother and her brothers, feeling so grateful that she’d said what she needed to say to her father. She hoped he’d heard it. The only thing she regretted is that she hadn’t said those words much earlier: “I forgive you”. Her heart was lighter, though her grief was heavy. But her bitter need for vengeance, based on what she’d never understood, was gone. And now she could move ahead with her life, without the burden of that anger on her shoulders.
If you have a chance to forgive, do it now. Without that act, we can never expect to be forgiven by others.
©Janet Mitchell, December, 2011. Any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This is a work of fiction.