A group of us have been participating in a 9-week discussion on human meaning for my husband’s seminary coursework. We each chose a book to read as a launching point to consider some human-meaning experiences, often through suffering, and we were each asked to complete a project. Mine is in the form of a letter to my dad – which I will never give him.
I have so many questions and how I wish you could answer them!
- “How long has it been this bad?”
- “When did you start to feel afraid to live in your house?”
- “How were you able to take her putting you down for so long?”
- “What, in your mind, made that an acceptable way to be treated?”
- “Why did you go back when we tried to help you get out those times in the past?”
- “Did you feel abandoned by us?”
During the course of the last 23 years, you could have had a life characterized by family, love, laughter, and safety – and yet a part of me understands the search for something outside of the valuable things we have been given – within a restless heart, when we allow ourselves to become unduly discontented within our circumstances. You may have been looking for what you thought was missing when you made the decision to leave our mother: maybe you thought you didn’t have a true partner in her and sought it in someone else (as elusive as that turned out to be); maybe you thought the physical component of the abuse would cease if you just kept loving; maybe you felt that after the decision you made, there was no option to go back; maybe you thought your current wife’s anger would soften over time. You decided not to defend yourself or respond in kind because the one time you tried to stop it, you were mortified that you scared her so. You made the irrevocable decision that you would never do that again; and so it continued, and escalated, unchecked.
Today, your answers are limited to one word responses:
- “Are you warm enough?” “Yes.”
- “What do you want me to make for lunch, sesame chicken or meatloaf?” “Meatloaf.”
- “Do you need to lie down for a nap?” “Yes.”
I had hoped by now you would be speaking in full sentences, as it’s been over a month since you were released from the hospital. I miss hearing your thoughts.
Your life was interesting: You had a job in your teen years of diving for abalone, you did land surveying during your time in the military (in your humor, you once “baptized” the men in your battalion with a fire hose), you were a good dancer and “rescued” Mom from a poor dancer because you thought the other man “selfish” – which is how you two met. You once called Mom a “precious person”; and she was.
All I know to do now is engage in sharing my heart for you the best I can, hoping that what is getting through is more than I can tell. I always let you know how nice it is to have you here. I tell you how much I appreciated growing up in a house filled with music and why the piano (which you’ve played for most of your life) is my favorite instrument of all. I thank you for teaching me the value of respecting authority, using titles and why that’s important, understanding that when the check arrives without a tray it means you pay at the counter, answering scientific questions such as “why is the sky blue?” and being fascinated by your response that it’s not blue from every planet, taking us to the library every week to check out children’s books of our own, catching salamanders at Glen Park and bringing them home to our backyard in a shoe box, trying to show me that I was “enough” when dealing with the behavior of bullies (though I misunderstood at the time), spending seemingly endless hours trying to help me with math (for which, I was utterly convinced, was my arch nemesis).
Whenever I am in tremendous pain for how you’ve been treated and for what you’ve endured, I hold onto the truth that it never has to be that way again and that we have time – as short as that time is now that you’re 87 and spend much more of it asleep than awake. I’m so grateful that you didn’t die that way, as close as you were to that; I cannot even entertain what level of destruction to my soul would have ensued had you passed away under those circumstances. “Empaths carry the pain of the world”, my therapist friend says. I cannot choose otherwise; it feels too disingenuous to try and “protect” myself from another’s pain.
But this is supposed to be about meaning. What types of aspects of this long event bring meaning? How can real meaning arise through such experiences? Because we are made in the image of God, our value is inherent. For most of us there is an alarm in our souls when a created being of value, such as a person, is denigrated into an object upon which we can engage in the most vicious and self-centered expressions of anger without regard for the impact or experience of the abused. We were never meant for such, but to reveal the glory of God in one another as we recognize value and the unique ways of our individual giftedness. The meaning comes in the loving movement to act in direct opposition to the toxicity of the former, in the prayer for an experience for you that is redemptive, in the hope that the genuine expression of “I’m so sorry for the destruction that was inflicted upon you, but please know you are loved, valued, and welcome into this space and into our midst to simply be, or advance as you can or will regardless of past mistakes made”.
And when you leave from this earth, it will not be under the hand of cruelty, but under the support of a family who still values you – just as you are and simply because you exist. It is making every effort to ensure that this love we are endeavoring to express registers at the deepest level.