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Forgiving Our FATHERS AND MOTHERS
Finding Freedom from Hurt and Hate
By LESLIE LEYLAND FIELDS, JILL HUBBARD
Thomas Nelson Copyright © 2014 Leslie Fields and Dr. Jill Hubbard
All rights reserved.
Becoming Jonah: Running from Our Stories
Oh yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.
—Rafiki, from The Lion King
It's my wedding day. We've just finished our last finals for the fall semester. Now, two days later, Duncan and I are getting married.
I am not a princess bride; I am wearing a wedding dress borrowed from my English professor. The dress is fifteen years out of date, and it doesn't fit me very well. I know I don't look beautiful in it, but it cost nothing, and I am honored that my English prof, whom I admire, has offered it to me. I will do my own makeup and hair.
The church was decorated by my friends, who hung fresh pine boughs cut from nearby trees. Our budget for the wedding is three hundred dollars. I have no idea who is supposed to pay for and do what. (I've been to a single wedding in my life.) But at the age of just-turned twenty, it is scandalous to me to think of parents being involved in our wedding. Luckily, neither mother cares. Duncan's parents and younger brother have flown down from Alaska to this small church in Ohio, that Duncan and I attend. His grandmother is here from Oklahoma. His older brother and sister-in-law are here from Indiana.
On my side of the church sit my mother and youngest brother, who drove down from New Hampshire two days before the wedding. My father is working in a shoe factory—throwing hides onto a stamping machine—the first regular job he's had. He will not come. My other two brothers are working and cannot get time off; my two sisters have small children and have no way to get here. But even having two here is something. I'm grateful for their presence.
The wedding march plays. The small church is full, mostly of congregants who have so generously embraced us. I am partly afraid. What am I doing? I feel as though I am the maker of my own future, which thrills me but scares me as well.
I am walking alone down the aisle—of course! Wasn't I the one who made it here, to this altar, by herself? At twenty, I have been running my own life for a while, and I don't need my first walk with my father to begin now, down this wedding aisle. The lace carpet is the runway to my future. Duncan and I will live in Alaska, on a small wilderness island. We will commercial fish. We will travel. We will build a new life together, five thousand miles away from the claustrophobic houses and small towns I grew up in. Surely that is far enough away to be freed from the past and to become the person I want to be.
* * *
My sister Laurie ran away from home at fifteen. I did not know the details until the writing of this book. She ran away at night many times, opening the window, stooping to get through, dropping to the ground, and running two miles in the night to her friend's house, a shack on a backwoods dirt road. She would vow each time that she'd never go back home, but the next morning she would walk back before my mother's wake-up call for school.
But one night the pattern ended. She gathered some essentials in a bag and left near midnight. He was there to pick her up, her then seventeen-year-old boyfriend, with his hopped-up car. His family had an old trailer in the woods that no one else knew about. They went there, Laurie now feeling a mix of sickness and freedom. What would happen when everyone got up at 6:30 a.m. and she wasn't there? right then she didn't care.
When we saw the next morning that she was gone, we weren't surprised. Laurie was different from the rest of us. She was dark and moody, withdrawn. We lived in rural New Hampshire, and the rest of us escaped the house when our work was finished as often as we could and spent long days in the woods, on the skating pond, on the hill behind our house, in the field across the street. We had few neighbors. Friends couldn't come over. We were one another's friends and playmates—but Laurie often would not join us. She hung back and did ... I don't know what she did, but it seemed she wasn't around very much, and when she was, there was some kind of trouble. She played with her kneecaps incessantly one year, until she pushed it too far and couldn't walk. She fell down the stairs one night when the six of us were alone at home. She was twelve, I think, and lying there, hurt. We didn't know what to do. But we knew if it were to happen to anyone, it would be Laurie. She was a dark presence among us.
We didn't know where she was for months, though the police were looking for her. We didn't know why she left, just that she was always unhappy. I wished her well but was not concerned for her. I didn't know enough about the world to be concerned. I just knew she was freed from our house—and I was glad for her. (Now, looking back, I can imagine much better how difficult it was for my mother.)
The trailer was finally found one day, months later, but Laurie refused to return. Three years later, when she turned eighteen, she came back to marry her boyfriend before a justice of the peace.
There are so many ways to run.
William grew up with a volatile, hostile mother. He left home for college, then married and returned only for rare visits.
Vonnie ran from her house into the arms of a boyfriend, marrying him at nineteen.
Randi tried disappearing through anorexia and excessive workouts, running out her rage on the road and track every day.
Dena immersed herself in her children and her new life, pretending everything was fine.
Lisa refused communication with her father, who abandoned her family while she was in high school.
Jimmy became engrossed in achievement, deciding he would be the best at whatever he turned his hand to.
We go off to college, to early marriages, to early parenthood, to jobs. We grow up and leave our parents' houses, often too soon, sometimes not soon enough. We don't always know we are running from what's behind us—sometimes we are so numbed to our pasts that we think only of running into our futures. Almost always there is silence as we each desperately work at building a new life, a new identity. This is the second runaway: we will not listen or attend to what we've left behind. We leave through the doors, and we think the new houses we choose are distant and safe. But the construct seldom holds.
Dena kept having panic attacks while shopping or cleaning the house, ordinary things in a life she thought was fixed and "normal."
Vonnie's marriage collapsed into an acrid divorce, plunging her into alcoholism, a series of boyfriends, and a brush with suicide.
Lisa brought her suppressed past into her marriage, viewing her husband with suspicion. Her father had been an adulterer and had abandoned her. Her husband would as well, she knew.
Nudges and prods, tentacles from our earlier lives, reach in. Meanwhile, Mother's Day and Father's Day pop up on the calendar every year. Don't we all know what it's like to read every single card on the rack—all those verses about love and gratitude, how our parents were always there for us and how much they listened, how thoughtful they've been all through the years—and then to put each one back, reaching instead for the blank card, where we could write about the weather? Maybe someone will create a line of cards that better fit our lives: "Thanks, Dad, for, uh, doing your part in siring me." "Thanks so much, Mom, for giving me ... well, for giving me life." "Happy Father's Day, Dad. Thanks for not yelling at me as much as you could have."
Or maybe we go to a movie or a play, and there's a moment of such tenderness between a father or mother and a child that we suck in our breath. Maybe we cry. I went to a seminar one year called The Blessing, about parents handing down a legacy, giving their children their blessing and support as they move out into life. How many have received this? I ran out of the auditorium, sobbing. Why didn't we all run out?
These reminders are not always painful. After speaking at a Christian college at homecoming, I was led into the inner sanctum, the cherry-paneled dining room saved for the speakers and the potential donors. I sat down awkwardly for lunch with the president and assorted faculty. Halfway through the meal, the president turned to me and asked, "What does your father do?"
I looked at him, puzzled. I was thirty-six at the time, with a husband and three children. I had left home nineteen years ago. My parents had divorced ten years earlier. I had no contact with my father. So what did I say to the immaculate, designer-suited college president over our linen napkins and exquisite food? My mind whirled while I decided how to answer. But it suddenly hit me—I knew what he was asking. I told the bald truth.
"He was a traveling salesman, but he couldn't sell anything, so he was unemployed a lot. He works in a factory now. He's an atheist."
The president blinked, eyes widened for a half second, and his smile went plastic while he nodded, and then he turned away. He barely spoke to me the rest of the lunch. I'm out, then. I am judged and found wanting—because of my father.
No matter how fleet your feet, how far you travel, those days come. Phone calls come in the afternoon, in the middle of your life, and everything changes. Vonnie's sister called her one day. "Mom's dying. She wants to see you." Vonnie was dropping her kids off at school. How could she go see her mother? It had been twenty years since she had seen her—and still the fear was there. She should go, she knew. It was the right thing to do—but how?
Vonnie, shaking with the return of suppressed memories, drove to her doctor's office and walked up to the window. The receptionist looked up at her, their eyes met, and Vonnie burst into tears. When the doctor heard her story, he set up an appointment with a counselor.
Over the next few days with the counselor, Vonnie recognized that she still loved her mother, as hard as it was to admit it. She realized maybe she had loved her all along, but her mother could never love her back. "It was okay for me to say I loved her, but she couldn't love me," she said. "When I realized the truth of that, it was a weight off my shoulders. I felt like finally I had some control." Shortly after those emergency visits with the counselor, Vonnie decided she would go see her mother.
Her hands shook as she entered the driveway; she was still fearful. Moments later, she entered the bedroom and looked cautiously at the woman in the bed—white-haired, her eyes shut. She was frail, crippled, unable to talk or move or feed herself—the final days of Alzheimer's, her sister told her. She hadn't recognized anyone in a while.
Vonnie sat beside her on the bed. The dying mother opened her eyes, not focused, and started to move them around. She saw Vonnie, her oldest child, and whispered to her, "I shouldn't have been so hard on you." Then Vonnie's mother cried. It was the first time Vonnie had turned around to look behind her. And it began to change her life.
* * *
A phone call from a sister broke into my life as well. It was two or three years after my family's visit to sarasota. The call came while I was fixing supper and coaching homework, settling disputes between brothers, working on a book in my head—all the things my life was overflowing with.
"Dad fell down on the sidewalk walking back from the store last week. He couldn't get up. An ambulance came—he's out of the hospital now. They thought he might have had a little heart attack. I just found out today."
My father was in his mid-eighties by then. How surprising could this news be, especially since he'd smoked all his life, and his favorite food was ice cream? The larger question was, why had he lived this long? But I instantly saw him, fallen on the sidewalk, helpless, with a few people gathering, and felt a piercing stab in my gut. That's my father. And I knew that had he died, we would not have heard about it for ... how long? Maybe a week. He had not told anyone in his housing complex that he had children.
"How did you find out, Laurie?"
"I talked to Dad on the phone today."
Silence. Then, "You're talking to Dad?"
"Yes. I've been calling him almost every week," she said, her voice calm and assured.
"Does he talk to you? What do you talk about?" I could not hide my amazement and confusion. I couldn't believe that out of the six of us, she was the one calling him.
"Yeah, he talks. I ask him about things. He'll answer. Sometimes I'm on the phone with him for forty-five minutes."
I didn't quite believe this. "But what does he say? He's never talked to us before."
"I don't know. We just talk about whatever's going on."
I was silent for a moment, then asked, "Why are you doing this, Laurie?"
"I just think he needs someone to care about him." She said it simply, without judgment.
That was a new thought. I wasn't sure about it. Why Laurie? Dad was the very reason she had run away from home.
The children, the victims, are not the only ones who flee. My father ran away too. When he was employed, he was a traveling salesman and dressed in a suit every morning, drank instant coffee, and left the house. He'd drive all day, sometimes all week, around New England, paying for his own gas and own time, stopping to drink coffee in small cafés and Friendly's ice cream shops, an unheard-of luxury in our family's nonexistent economy. He dreamed of a final good-bye, sailing alone around the world for the rest of his life.
When my mother and father divorced, finally, when we were all out of the house, he fled to Florida and stayed there, living on a twenty-eight-foot, derelict sailboat, thousands of miles from his family. He came back home just once, for two nights, for a family reunion, but only because my brother drove two thousand miles down to Florida to get him, then drove him all the way back to Florida the next day.
We've all run, fugitives from our own stories, our pasts. But sometimes we are running from a future as well, a future we cannot imagine, one we don't want a part in creating. I know of someone who did this. You may know him too. He was living whatever a normal life looked like twenty-eight hundred years ago, a man with a job to keep, bills to pay, parents to please. And then—"the word of the Lord came to" him, and we know it's going to mean trouble.
It did, indeed. The world was a mess, of course, but it was a manageable mess, it seemed to Jonah. His own life was hardly a party, but it was his life, and he knew where to go when things got hard. He had his buddies; he had his haunts and hangouts. He knew where to worship, too, because he was not just a regular guy. He was a prophet, and he had work to do, words of God to speak. But now he was being asked to step outside of the life he knew and managed.
"Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me," God said (Jonah 1:2). God rang his bell, which He has every right to do.
We know what comes next. We've all heard this story since childhood; even those of us who weren't raised in sunday school may have somehow heard this fantastical tale of a man who ran away from God and got swallowed by a whale, and three days later got vomited out. (Did I spoil the ending for anyone? so sorry!) That's what kids remember—Jonah, the upchucked prophet. But for us here and now, Jonah's story echoes into our own. He'd been called to a great, wicked city located in a neighboring country. They were enemies with Jonah and his countrymen, by reason of birth and by reason of their own violence and cruelty. They'd done his people wrong, maybe even done Jonah himself wrong. He had reason to hate them. And now he had to go and preach to them.
Preaching against them wasn't the problem. The problem was, he was ordered to warn them of their coming fate—they'd be destroyed if they didn't repent.
Destruction? Total destruction? Why should they be warned? Jonah must have thought. Why give the chance to repent? How many times had Israel herself been destroyed, and judgment not been withheld? Oh, the bitter taste of this, to be forced to preach "repent!" to enemies deserving only of death! To be compelled to offer mercy to those who had not been merciful! What kind of God was this, who did not honor boundaries and simple, decent justice?
He could not bear it. So he ran. He's one of us. Yes, to the ship bound the other way. And don't we do this? We never run toward what must be done. Instead, we run precisely the other way. It's logical; it makes complete sense—until we remember God. Until we remember who He is and that this is His world, not ours. And we realize the absurdity of trying to outrun the only One.
Yet we do it again and again. This book almost didn't happen. After believing I was called to write it (no, not a voice from heaven, but almost), I ran from it. I ignored it for almost two years, busying myself with everything else. To turn around and marinate for two years in a life and memories I've spent my energies escaping—why would I do that? Why would any of us make that turn back?
Excerpted from Forgiving Our FATHERS AND MOTHERS by LESLIE LEYLAND FIELDS, JILL HUBBARD. Copyright © 2014 Leslie Fields and Dr. Jill Hubbard. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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