My father died last weekend, peacefully in his sleep. He was sick and unhappy for a very long time, so while his death was anticipated, the reality of it still surprised me. Even as I worked with hospice and caregivers daily over the last few weeks anticipating the moment, when death arrives, it turns things over on its head in ways you can’t anticipate. Finally, at the moment of his departure, all the years of trying to forgive him came clear. During all the efforts to forgive him and his persistent disrespectful and abusive ways, I never once looked at forgiving myself for not being able to love him. Going through his wallet now and finding photos of him on his driver’s license and one he had just gotten to carry a concealed weapon, I was at last able to see him beyond the anger, which was his primary interactive mode to keep people away. I could see into the grief and isolation that his photos showed. I wept for my own inability to love him more. My 17-year-old son, ever wise, said, “You loved him as much as he let you.”
It is true that we receive only the love we believe we deserve. Tragically, for many of us, the most common act of love we commit to is its refusal. My father was so deeply wounded in love by his mother and then by my mother, that love’s failures is what he came to expect and, in fact, what he became most skilled at creating in all of his relationships. Love is a real currency that flows and does its work as it is exchanged, it doesn’t disappear when it is refused, but it can’t act upon those who are closed off to its healing. In turn, closing down makes it easy to blame others and commit our lives to the stories of how people have failed us in their inability to live up to the love we expect. My father was committed to these stories to his final breath. His last conscious words towards me were not loving or grateful; in his harsh and cruel manner, he answered my attempts to love him with “Go to hell…” His caregiver might have been shocked, but I wasn’t. This was how he always reacted towards my attempts to love and help him. It had always hurt, but it wasn’t until his death that I experienced the depth of the pain, because I was no longer trying to numb the experience of dealing with him.
Most surprising of all, was the phone call that I received from his primary care doctor. Throughout the weeks of organizing his care, I was profusely apologizing for his rude insolent tone and unwillingness to cooperate with the doctors and nurses who cared for him. So I did again with his primary care physician who told me how long he had tried to get my father to do this or that…. Also how many times he tried to get him to leave his practice. “Your father was one of the most intelligent patients I ever had, and also by far the most difficult.” As we continued talking, the most remarkable healing act of all transpired. He said, “You know speaking with you, I know there must have been some real abiding goodness in him for him to have raised a daughter like you. He may not have known it, but he was a really lucky man and probably a better person than he let on.”
This was the first time that anyone had ever reflected my goodness onto my father and not the reverse, which was the many shameful ways that I sometimes resemble my father in his coarse and brutal ways. In his presence, I was always so overwhelmed with this shameful recognition of him in me, that until the moment of his death, when his longtime doctor saw the goodness in him through me, the reverse had never occurred to me. I don’t know if his doctor will ever know the deep healing he brought to both of us in that moment, but it is a love cure that I know will change how I live for the rest of my days.
Trying to love difficult people who refuse our love is really no different than refusing to see how we ourselves are loveable. Shifting our focus and realizing, that no matter what it looks like out there, underneath it all, we ourselves, are the source of goodness and light we seek from others. This is the love cure that can heal the world.