The Daughters and Dad

Adapted from a photo by Jeff Robinson at Flickr. Creative Commons License

The Daughters and Dad

I participated in services this weekend for a family that I have known almost ten years now.

Our relationship began when I served as hospice chaplain for a woman who lived at home with her second husband. For some reason, we made a strong connection, and I visited often. I recall spending an entire overnight there with our nurse, tending to her symptoms and trying to help the family come to terms with her dying.

It was during and after that time that I met her four daughters. A couple of them lived in town and the other two flew in from their homes elsewhere. Four women, their mother and their step-father — it was a lively, talkative crew that welcomed us into their home at a significant moment in their life.

Mom died, and I officiated the funeral. In the course of helping them through all that and in their season of grief afterward, I heard about their troubled lives.

Their mother’s first husband, their biological father, had left her after a dozen years or so of marriage, with four little girls. She did her best to take care of them, but it was too much for her. She essentially abandoned them on the front steps of their grandmother, who tried but soon became overwhelmed also. So four young daughters were shipped out into various homes and forms of foster care. They grew up separately, in different places, not knowing one another or sharing life as had once been planned. There was still much unspoken about those years, but I could sense that it had not been an easy journey.

And yet, here they were. Somehow, over the years they had renewed acquaintances with each other and their parents, and had now come together to be with their mom at the end of her life. If they hadn’t opened up to me, I would never have imagined their life had been so painful and malfunctional. They seemed to handle caring for their dying loved one with all the usual ups and downs. We gradually lost touch but I knew they kept tabs on their stepfather and were supportive of him.

About five years later, one of the daughters contacted me. Her husband had died. Could I help them with his funeral? I did. And then, after a couple more years, their stepdad came on to our hospice service and I walked with them through his death and memorial.

Out of the blue last week I received a phone message from one of the girls again. I hadn’t thought of them for a long time, but as soon as I heard her voice, images of our past experiences together came rushing back in. Now, she was saying on the voicemail that their biological father had died.

I called her right back and said of course I’d be happy to help them again.

Only the two local daughters were able to participate. The others, because of extenuating circumstances, had to settle for sending flowers from afar. Oh yes, they told me they had found out that they had a step-brother too. Over the past I’m not sure how long, they had been reunited with their father and and helped care for him at the end of his life. They talked about sitting with him, caring for him, and partnering with his VA and Legion buddies to get him to his doctor appointments and out and about. They were with him when he died.

The daughter who had called me had put an extraordinary amount of effort into organizing the events this weekend. When she read her eulogy for her father at the service, she focused on his life, some of his remarkable gifts, his heroic military service, his interests and loves.

The other spoke too, and she said that her feelings were more mixed. Her dad had not been there for his daughters. She saw pictures of them together when she was a little girl, and was grateful for those pictures, but when she looked at them closely, she realized she didn’t really know who that man was. They really didn’t have a relationship. He hadn’t ever been tender or affectionate. They grew up without him. He had left them. He was absent.

Then she told of an experience she had while caring for him. He asked her to help him sit up on the side of the bed. In his weakness, as she raised him up, he fell forward and reached out his arms. She caught him and found herself in his embrace. He wouldn’t let go. She laid her head on his back and stayed in his arms for several minutes.

She didn’t know what it meant. She didn’t know if it meant anything. Was he saying, “I need you”? Was he saying, “I love you”? Was he saying, “I’m sorry”? Was he saying, “Forgive me”? Whatever it meant, if anything at all, she was there and they had touched.

And now here she was, speaking of her dad and honoring him with the rest of the family.

I pulled both daughters aside and said how proud I was of them. Even with all they had been through, even with the complicated relationship they had with their father, here they were, honoring him like the commandment says. He may not have always been honorable, but they still chose to give him honor as their father.

One of them looked at me and said, “Well, he’s a human being and no one deserves to die alone or not have a service. And he gave us life, didn’t he?”

10 thoughts on “The Daughters and Dad

  1. I was fortunate in my parents. The trouble came with my sister, who was too much like my mother for them ever to get along. They feuded until the day my mother died; and, because I got along fine (enough) with both parents, I hadn’t seen my sister for the last five years or so of my mother’s life. Even our best mutual friend was convinced that my sister and I would never see each other again after the funeral. But we discovered, in sorting out my parents’ estate, how much we thought alike, believed in the same things, liked a lot of the same things, and that neither of us wanted to hold a grudge against the other. We’ve been fast friends in the two decades since. I very much admire the two sisters who found each other again after a very hard beginning, who were still able to reconcile with each other, both their mother and step-father, and, in the end, to respect and honor even the biological father who had left them in such dire straits. That takes a kind of love and generosity that I don’t think I could muster, but I am grateful for their example.

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  2. Adapting your advice, I guess that means I need to pray to see them as full and free human beings, capable of sinning and forgiving. That is a prayer discipline that will take me decades to realize, that will take me into the life beyond my own death.

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  3. I do understand how they were hurt. In a way, I understand it too much, to the degree that I find it impossible to believe they had any choice but to do everything exactly the way they did in their lives. I have a sense of fatalism about who they were, and the choices they made, including the choices that affected me. I can’t imagine them free enough to even understand what forgiveness is; and in death, I can’t imagine them being different enough to understand it, to be capable of it, and still be the same people. I really don’t believe I have anything to forgive them for, anymore than if they had been an inanimate object or impersonal event that impacted and maimed me for life. They were what they were, they couldn’t choose to be otherwise, and now they are dead and sealed in what and who they were. I feel the way Kurt Vonnegut/Billy Pilgrim did about the firebombing of Dresden (which he survived as a POW in the city) inSlaughterhouse-Five: “So it goes.”

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  4. You can still do it, Robert. Try to understand how they, too, were hurt. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you see as much of the truth as you can bear, and to help you see them simply as needy human beings needing compassion. Ask for help to forgive them, or at least come to the place where you can ask God not to hold anything against them in the day of judgment on your account, giving up all need for revenge. Of course this will take time, and Jesus will be with you in whatever suffering you have to revisit; ask him to comfort you. You might even get to the place were you can ask those family members in prayer to forgive you. I know from my own experience and from the witness of others that this can happen, and lead you to a place of peace, and forgiveness of yourself, too.

    God bless you. Praying for you and E.

    Dana

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  5. I was estranged from my father and stepmother when they died (father in 1994, stepmother in 2010) due to a family feud between my brother and stepmother which grew to consume all around it. Very dysfunctional. Don’t know that much about honoring them, the damage was just too great, but I did the bare minimum for Dad. Stepmother’s death and funeral was kept secret from pretty much everybody as per her wishes. Bad scene all around.

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  6. “They grew up separately, in different places, not knowing one another or sharing life as had once been planned. There was still much unspoken about those years, but I could sense that it had not been an easy journey.

    And yet, here they were. Somehow, over the years they had renewed acquaintances with each other and their parents, and had now come together to be with their mom at the end of her life.”

    what comes to mind:
    “The Death of Abraham
    …8And at a ripe old age he breathed his last and died, old and contented, and was gathered to his people. 9His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite. ” (Genesis, chapter 25)

    that after Ishmael and Hagar were sent out into the desert by Abraham and Sarah, and Hagar ‘wept’ and God heard her cries for her infant in their need, and sent an angel . . . . and God watched over Ishmael as he grew.
    That after all that, we come to the strange scene of reconciliation in the twenty-fifth chapter of Genesis: the two brothers reconcile over the grave of their father Abraham and bury him together as his sons who honor him.

    It is that image of reconciliation, or healing, of ultimate coming together to be with a dying parent . . . . something profoundly speaks to us in this strange passage in Genesis that forecasts that in God’s time, all mankind might be able to be reconciled to their Creator God AND TO EACH OTHER.

    sometimes the strangest and almost obscure verses in sacred Scripture are the ones that make you sit up and take notice as though these passages held in them a promise of healing . . . we are not told the whole story of how Ismael came to be with his half-brother Isaac over the tomb of their father, but we know it happened. And that is comforting and hopeful, that is healing of the breach between brothers had happened, that a cast-off estranged son of Abraham came at the end to bury him alongside his brother Isaac. A whole ‘book’ within a ‘verse’, with ‘so much unspoken about those intervening years’.

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  7. In regard to my parents, both of them now deceased many years and decades, I did not honor them. My family was not a relationally or psychologically healthy one, and my alienation from it started from the moment I became self-aware, growing as I did. I wanted to escape the pain I felt in and with them, and eventually did so as an adult. But much of what was unhealthy in my childhood, of course, shaped and formed me as a person, which has made it impossible for me to have normal relations with other people, and made me feel alien in the world. A lot of the bad stuff is embedded in me. Perhaps if I had found a way of turning back to my family, to my parents, and honoring them by giving what I could to them, on the simple basis of their being needy human beings near at hand, I could’ve begun to heal from the inner disorder that I shared with them. Instead, I abandoned them, the whole family, and in doing so closed off the opportunity to walk the hard path of forgiving and healing. Where there is a lack of honoring one’s parents, I suppose it comes from the unrealized need to forgive and heal.

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