“You’re a good daughter,” the words I had longed to hear for so long, brought tears to my eyes. And although I was 58 years old, when I first heard him speak those words, it filled my heart with the happy innocence of a child.
The first two years of my life were filled with turmoil and grief. My father was killed by a drunk driver when I was just nine weeks old, and my nineteen year old mother went into a horrible dark depression.
My mother married Stephen, a childhood friend that she had become reacquainted with, when I was three years old. Just before I turned four, my little brother, Steve, was born.
All the kids in my neighborhood had dads, and I desperately wanted this step-dad of mine, to love me like a “real father”. That never happened – at least in my childhood anyway.
For the most part, I did alright growing up without a “real father”. My mother loved me enough for two parents, and the family of my deceased father loved me, and spoiled me.
It was difficult though, watching my stepfather worship my little brother. He smothered Steve with love, affection, and kindness, but mostly treated me with anger and indifference.
The final nail in the coffin of my relationship with my stepfather came the summer before my senior year in high school, when he moved our family to a small town 250 miles away. I didn’t want to move – I would be graduating with friends I had gone to school with since kindergarten. I begged and pleaded to stay, but he said no, and ended up having to literally drag me, kicking and screaming, out of the childhood home I had grown up in.
Somehow, I managed to graduate, even though I ditched over half of my senior year. I was angry at my stepfather. Full of loathing and resentment. I couldn’t wait to get out of the house, and I left immediately after turning eighteen.
Through my young adult years, the relationship with my stepfather was all but non-existent, perfunctory at best. The anger and bitterness were certainly still there, but I had managed to cover it with a light frosting of politeness.
That all began to change in the winter of 2016, when I returned home to Colorado to visit my mother who was gravely ill.
I had planned on staying only 3 weeks, and I was extremely concerned about having to stay with my stepdad during that time. But, I decided to make the best of it for my Mom’s sake, and kept telling myself, “it’s only temporary.”
Just eleven days into my visit, my mother suffered a pulmonary embolism at the nursing home where she lived. She was given CPR and did survive, but her health became even more critical, due to that ordeal.
Those three weeks turned into three years. In spite of our strained relationship, my stepdad invited me to continue staying with him, so I could help care for my Mom.
It was strange and uncomfortable, living with my stepfather. So, we kept busy. We took shifts, caring for my mother, and stayed out of each other’s way. We barely spoke, and when we did, it was just to report in on what was going on with Mom.
One brutally hot night, in the summer of 2018, I couldn’t sleep and decided to find something on YouTube to watch. Listed among the suggested videos, was a video on forgiveness. I remember thinking, while I was watching that video, that as nice as forgiveness sounded, there was no way there would ever be forgiveness between my stepfather and I.
Two weeks later, a late-night knock at our front door, became the catalyst of our forgiveness. We opened the door to the Coroner, notifying us that my brother had died.
Miraculously, it was through the tragedy of losing my brother, that brought my stepfather and I closer together.
We both loved him. We both grieved him. We found comfort in sharing our stories of Steve. Although the underlying anger and bitterness was still there, it was being chipped away with every tear and memory shared.
Eight months later, our grief was compounded, when we lost Mom. The night before my mother went unresponsive, she asked me where I would go after she was gone. Before I could answer, she squeezed my hand and said, “Stay with your Dad. He needs you. Please take care of him for me.”
We went through the motions of family and funeral, and tried our best to carry on. The loss of my mother, hit my stepfather hard. He was 80, and frail, and began falling. He fell four times in the first three months after my mother died. I didn’t want to stay, but I had made a promise to my mother, and felt I couldn’t leave.
Then a magical thing happened. We began talking. Not just about my brother and mother, but about the past. Things we did, and choices we made. We cried, and hugged, and told each other we were sorry. He told me the reasons behind the move during my senior year, and how sorry he was for not listening to me. He listed every regret he had, where I was concerned, and laid them all at my feet.
I knew in my heart, this was a defining moment, and it was my choice, as to how we moved forward. I could choose to hold onto the bitterness, or I could choose to let go of that burden I had been dragging around for years.
I chose forgiveness. The regrets were swept away, and our hearts began healing.
Here we are now, six months after my mother’s death, not just roommates, but friends. We take flowers to Mom’s grave together. We go to dinner and movies together. We talk about our family, and our love for one another. And every time Dad goes to Subway, he brings home a chocolate chip cookie for me.
This man is no longer my stepfather. For the first time in my life of more than fifty years, I know what it’s like to have a “real father” that loves me, and wants the best for me.
Forgiveness is a choice. It’s not telling the other person that what they did is okay, it’s telling the other person that you understand they are human and make mistakes.
We don’t forgive for the other person, we forgive for ourselves. To be relieved of that heartache and burden.
“Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that crushed it.” ~Mark Twain