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Memoir: when my deadbeat dad had a stroke, I finally learned how to forgive him

Memoir: UnforgivenIn the spring of 2006, I sat in a padded metal chair and watched my 63-year-old father wake up from a Demerol sleep. He was lying in a bed in the intensive care unit at Toronto Western, recovering from a stroke that, quite literally, had knocked him off his feet. There was damage to his spinal cord; now, his doctors were saying, he was permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

“I dreamed I could walk,” my dad said. There were several people in the room, including two nurses and my grandmother, but his blue eyes snapped right on mine. “I can’t walk, can I?”

His voice was filled with more genuine sorrow and desperation than I had ever heard, but I felt no sympathy. Good, I thought. Now you know what it feels like to have a part of you ripped away.

My bitterness surprised me. In the five years before my dad’s stroke, I had seen him only a handful of times, and the story of our estrangement was not characterized by intense emotion. I grew up amid widespread parental divorce, and my memory of my dad leaving—standing in the driveway with his stuff in plastic bags, my mom locking the door behind him—had been softened by the ubiquity of deadbeat dads on TV. Conveniently, my father and the pop culture stereotype were a perfect match: an alcoholic who was financially unsupportive and only occasionally showed up for our bimonthly visits. Still, he had an undeniable charisma—Irish-y, warm, verbose—that made him as easy to love and miss as he was to resent and despise. Growing up, I blamed him for pretty much every routine failure. When my mom snapped at me at the end of a two-job workday, when I got my first unpayable student loan bill, when I broke up with my charming, irresponsible boyfriend, I had a neat, Dad-shaped hole into which I could shove my anger and disappointment.

Now, he was the helpless one; now I could abandon him. But for reasons I couldn’t understand, I didn’t. Weeks later, there I was, standing at a vending machine in the hospital hallway, hearing my father call my name from his bed down the hall. Months later, there I was, watching him learn how to pull himself from his bed to his new wheelchair via a long, curved-edge board. In his room at the rehab centre where he would spend almost half a year, his bedside table was a jumble of things I had brought him: a collection of David Sedaris stories, Anthology of American Folk Music on CD, an album of photos of me in my apartment so he could see where I lived. Since I didn’t really know his tastes, I just guessed what he might like, but he loved everything instantly. He propped up the album so he could stare at a picture of me and my cat. He’d read to me from the Sedaris book, his smoker’s voice cracking into laughter.

“Tell me more,” he’d say sometimes, pointing outside the margins of a photo. “Is the kitchen over here, to the left? Do you have a gas stove, or electric? What do you make for dinner?”

My dad’s curiosity about me was surprising—he hadn’t seemed interested in me since he’d left. Sometimes, walking down the corridor of the rehab centre, I’d feel like such a rube I’d match my footsteps to different rationales: It’s-just-pity, or Ob-li-gation. Once he was stable, I thought, I’d be able to walk away. Other times, I pictured a looping sequence in which I opened the door to his room only to find an empty bed, my dad gone again. When I’d find him there, propped up against pillows, the relief was opiate-strong.

Sometimes we’d read the paper, scratchy blues playing in the background. “What do you think of this?” I’d ask my dad about some headline, more interested in his response than the story itself. I felt enraged at times, sad, guilty—but underneath this ambivalence, I realized, I was curious, too.

I talked to my father at least three times a week, for hours at a time, first in the rehab centre, and later in the bright, accessible apartment he found downtown. Adjusting to life in a wheelchair, he told me, was an ongoing struggle; beneath the drinker’s bonhomie, my father was deeply proud. “I literally can’t sit on a bar stool now,” he said during one of these talks. He told me about how calm he felt now that he wasn’t drinking—“like a 16-year-old kid.”

And many, many times he said: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I don’t know how I could have abandoned you, I don’t know what I was thinking, nothing in the world can make it up to you, and living with that is just the hardest damn thing.”

In 2011, my father unexpectedly inherited some money from the sale of his mother’s house. He
handed a chunk of it over to me, in a spirit not of absolution but of apology. I felt grateful, then mad at myself for feeling grateful. But mostly, I felt exhausted, and it was in this bone-tired space that I started to feel okay. It’s easy to hate a cartoon villain, much harder to hate a three-dimensional person—someone who is left-handed, who likes fruit but not fruit pie, and whose favourite George Carlin routine is “A Place for My Stuff.” The more details I collected about my dad, the less he seemed a match for that cut-out who’d stood in the driveway with his things in plastic bags.

Six years later, I don’t imagine that scene anymore—the one where I show up to meet my father at the hospital and he’s gone. I talk to him almost every day, and we see each other regularly. I know that whenever we meet, he’ll be there in his blue windbreaker, smiling from his wheelchair, holding some tiny present for me: a mouse he has carved out of driftwood, a box of daffodil bulbs for my garden. I don’t remember deciding to forgive him. Forgiveness was more the by-product of our conversations. It was another accident, so stunning it almost knocks me off my feet.

Alexandra Kimball is a writer and editor living in Toronto.

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  • Lily

    Thank you for this.

  • CeeVee

    You’re lucky that you “learned how to forgive” him…maybe it was a bit easier because he was repentant and easy to be around…? that must help somehow…I dunno.

    I find forgiveness impossible when they deny the truth, distort history, are disagreeable and defend their past actions which ultimately makes them completely unrepentant and unaccountable for pain that they inflicted and worse, justified it.
    So yes, your father understands how his actions hurt you and is now doing his best to connect with you….you are soooo fortunate to have him now.

  • C. Anne

    I too forgave my Dad for not coming and saving me from my Step dad. I thought he had no care in the world for us. Until a few years ago my husband called my maternal grandfather to find out anything about my dad’s whereabouts. I got the most wonderful and touching peice that I will cherish forever. He called my Grandmother regularly, until she got Cancer. He called to speak to her to find out how we were getting on. I’m guessing he requested her never to tell us or my mom. I understand why.
    My Grandma died in 1995. I found out about his nugget of golden information about 10-11 years later. I now have the disease he had and totally forgive him for being an alcoholic. I get it. I really get it. I fear that sometime in those 10-11 years that he too had succomb to complications of his illness, and Auto-Immune Disease that left him hunched over, unable to even stand tall if he wanted to. But I love him and dream about him often.

    Thank you for your happy story. Cherish every day you have with him <3

  • Alexandra Kimball

    Hey guys — thanks for your comments.

    Cee Vee makes a good point: there’s no repairing a relationship without both parties taking responsibility for their missteps. To be fair, this was never my father’s problem; he knew his actions were harmful all along, but felt powerless to change them. Such is addiction, sadly.

    C. Anne, it sounds like your dad also knew more about the effect of his actions than he was letting on. You just found out too late. Another argument for honesty, maybe? I dunno, this stuff is hard and every case is different. But being very upfront worked for me and my dad. It helped that we were both open to it.

  • AMz

    Hi Alexandra,

    I just wanted to thank you for sharing you story with us.
    The more I open my eyes to the world, the more I realize that having a dead-beat dad is more common than I ever believed.
    For years, I wondered why my dad wasn’t as good as others, and with the passing of time we grew farther and farther apart, until my mom and I moved to Canada 10 years ago. We went through almost 6 years of not seeing each other– sporadic emails and the obligatory bday call, which one day my dad had the nerve to ask me how old I was turning…. (I was between 14-20 y/o)
    Anyway, all this to say, in a similar sequence of events, I found my self boarding a flight to my home country to go see my dad when his sister/closest thing to family he has, fell ill. I realized that through those 6 years I harbored so much resentment for him, that I became an angry person… But the minute I saw him look so sad and frail at my aunt’s bedside, I realized that no matter what he is and will always be my dad.
    We’ve been working on talking more often, and talking about real life stuff and not just small talk on the phone.
    My heart is slowly healing and I am happy to see myself wanting to share seldom experiences with him… We’ll see what the future holds.

  • sk

    you are very lucky alexandra. i too visit my very ill dad whenever i’m in town and try to keep him some company. but i’m still waiting for him to say sorry for all the things he did before and after he left my mom and i. i am pretty certain i will never get that apology. it’s hard not to remain bitter and have the ‘it’s-just-pity’ loop running through my mind.

  • Marc

    Hey Munchkin,

    It was strange but nice to read about your dad and how you and he are doing now. I haven`t seen the two of you in such a long time yet I can picture everything you wrote (especially the blue eyes). I’m very sorry to hear about his health issues and I hope that he is doing well now. I remember you and him so vividly… almost as if it was yesterday.

    I’m glad you found some peace, some closure and a new beginning with your dad.

    Take care and I am very proud of you.

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