I am currently taking part in the Forgiveness Challenge. The goal of the challenge is to achieve personal freedom through letting go of the anger and resentment that goes with being hurt. Created by Desmond and Mpho Tutu, the challenge is a journey into leaving behind victimhood and embracing the freedom that awaits each of us once we reconcile with those who have hurt us or who we have hurt in the past. Once we have forgiven, we can choose to either renew our relationship with the other, or we can release the hold that relationship still has on us. One of the assignments of the challenge is to admit a wrong we have committed against another. Here is my response to that assignment.
The truth is I still carry a lot of anger and disappointment towards my father. For the hostility he showed me when I acknowledged that I was transgender, for example. And for his poor handling of my struggles with clinical depression as a young person. But if I peel away these feelings, what lies beneath is anger and disappointment towards myself. And shame. Because when it comes right down to it, I let my father down too. And badly.
When I was a teenager, I often looked at my father with resentment and disgust. What I saw was a broken man who had no backbone when his wife threw a barrage of insults his way. I saw a man who wasn’t strong like other men, or aggressive or sporty. He lived a simple life, with few luxuries and only a handful of close friends. He avoided the limelight and was – in my child’s eyes – just an ordinary, flawed man, nothing special. His physical disabilities only augmented the impression I had of him as weak, physically, socially, emotionally. His skin, covered in warts and thin so that his veins crisscrossed his cheeks, repulsed me, as did his gnarly, arthritic hands, and the stench of his sweat when he neglected to shower for a day or two.
I am not proud of how I felt, nor of how I treated him. Sometimes I spoke angrily at him, belittled him for being more mouse than man. I emulated the insults my mother threw his way and felt only resentment that he did not defend himself. He was no hero, not in my eyes. When he showed me his diaries from the days when he was in boarding school I ridiculed the child he once was. The child, whose voice on the page was filled with longing for a mother who showed him little affection, and a father who barely acknowledged his existence. I was terrified by his vulnerability and in terror I derided him.
My father is no longer alive to ask for forgiveness. And even if he was, I don’t know if he would hear what I had to say or understand the shame I feel. But I know that if I am to honour him moving forward I must reach a point where I am able to forgive myself. For his sake, I must forgive myself.
I now realize what a brave man my father was. How much courage it took to share his vulnerabilities with me and with the world. How despite the enormous physical pain he experienced, he accomplished so much with his life. He built a respectable private practice as a psychiatrist and supported a wife and three children. He travelled to Canada with a young family and started a new life far away from the country he was born to. And later he packed up his things and moved us back to the country of his origins, South Africa. That took guts and grit. He even managed to pay off his mortgage before he died. I remember how proud he was when he told me that.
When my father died, almost ten years ago now, I went a little crazy. For a year I grieved deeply, left my job, had nightmares where I was in his hospital room, the ocean beating against the building, the full moon shining down on the inky black waves and through the window of his room. My father lay in his hospital bed, oblivious, tubes emerging from every orifice. Then one night I dreamed my father returned home, with gifts for each of us in the family. He handed me a chocolate bar – something he sometimes did in real life – and then he wrapped his arms around me. I woke up, my body still tingling from his loving hug; I felt deeply comforted. After that the nightmares stopped. But the grieving continued on.
What I remember of him now is his gentle sense of humour, his childlike obsession with Afrikaner folk music, his deep humility. The purity that emanated from his brown eyes. He was by no means perfect. I cannot condone his support of the Apartheid regime, nor his suspicion (sparked by the fact that they wiped out many an Afrikaner family during the Anglo-Boer War) of all things British. And I don’t think I will ever accept his view of homosexuality and his belief that AIDS was God’s way of punishing an unnatural sex act (anal sex). Not to mention his antiquated views on transsexualism.
But despite our philosophical differences, I recognize that my father was deeply human. I recognize myself in him. And I love him now more than I ever was able to when I was younger. I will do my best to honour the kind, gentle man I know my father was. Because that man lives on in me.