Apologies make forgiveness a whole lot easier. I mean real apologies. Not "I'm sorry if I hurt you" or "I'm sorry if you were offended" but more like "I did it. I was wrong. I'm sorry." No equivocating. So what happens when you need to forgive someone who either isn't sorry or won't admit it to you? When what needs to be forgiven is so big that it is unforgivable? For a long time I thought forgiveness was overrated. It wasn't realistic, and what was wrong with a little righteous anger?
Then I needed to forgive for myself. It was time to give up waiting for an apology that was never going to come.
Last June my father died. He had stage four lung cancer, but I think it was his rage that killed him. I had worked on forgiving him for almost twenty years, and soon after his diagnosis, I finally did it. At the moment I said the words, I was so relieved. That feeling stayed with me until he died. And I meant everything I said. But now that he's gone, I find I'm still angry. I feel all dried up.
It was his reply. "I'm glad you forgive me, but see... you never asked if I forgive you."
I wasn't interested in engaging in any new battles, so all I said was "No, I didn't." To be fair, I had only seen or spoken to him a handful of times in the past ten years. If he wasn't dying, I don't know if I would have been moved to forgive him. But he was dying, and it moved me to feel pity, and an empathy that I had no idea was in me.
He did apologize to my mother and sister. But not me.
I loved my dad. He used to say I was the only one who understood him. I was also the first one in our family to leave him. I was twenty-seven. Two years later my mother left him and my sister soon followed. So when my mother told me, after Dad got his cancer diagnosis, that he had said "I think this diagnosis is God's punishment for all the bad decisions I've made for so many years" I was surprised. And moved to forgive him without waiting any longer. Much later, just before he died, he broke down crying. He told my sister "I'm so sorry for everything I did. So sorry." But when I arrived in town, days before his death, he wouldn't see me. I'll never know if it was because he was too weak or because he just couldn't bring himself to admit that he was wrong.
I had prepared for this. When I forgave him, I told him that I wanted him to keep that in his heart, no matter what happened between that moment and the time he died. I knew his moods could change moment to moment, and when the cancer started affecting his brain he might say awful things without meaning to, have horrible mood swings. Problem was, that was how he'd been his whole life. Reality became mushy, and sticking with my urge to forgive him became a burden.
My childhood was a roller coaster. When he was mad, he made it clear that he reviled us. When he was happy, we were all so happy that it verged on hysteria. Years later, between my mother, my sister, me, and all of our respective therapists; we came up with so many "diagnoses" for what we finally saw as mental illness that we began to wonder what he didn't have.
What was he really responsible for? One view is that he married for my mother's money, had multiple affairs, terrorized his family. Raging at us and threatening us, sleeping around instead of getting a job and never seeking treatment for his increasingly bizarre behavior--those were conscious choices that he'd made and never took responsibility for. Another view is that he just wasn't wired right. Morally, I agree with the first view. Yet I have to allow for the possibility of the second. And live with the fact that in the end, it didn't matter. I had to forgive it all, to let go of it all.
When dad found out he was dying, he didn't have a made for TV "life changing" moment where he realized he was responsible for his own behavior and set out to make amends. I think the fact that he was dying only made it harder for him to look at his life and see his mistakes. How does one admit that one's whole life has been a series of bad choices? He just wasn't built to do that. Why would anyone want to? To admit that at a moment when he was fighting for life with every last breath would have taken an unimaginable amount of courage. And even then nothing could have been undone. The best he could do was accept my forgiveness. With a caveat.
So I decided to take what I could get.
Some days I can imagine his true self, the part that knew what he had done and was sorry for it. I imagine him "getting" me, able to meet me where I am, for who I am. Other days I seem to only remember what he couldn't do.
What I've learned so far is that forgiveness isn't just about that one moment, when the words are said. Forgiveness has a life all it's own. It's more about the trying.