“I hate you!”
The venomous words spilled out of my eleven-year-old mouth like vomit. I ran to the bathroom, slammed the door behind me and locked myself in. He had the key to the door, but he didn’t use it. I sank to the floor and waited for him to yell, but the thud of his footsteps softened as he retreated to the other end of the house.
At 24 my memory has faded, but I remember laying in bed that night, still seething, still letting the weight of our words settle into my chest. My bedroom door opened – there he stood, silhouetted by the hall light.
Here we go, I thought. I’m in for it now.
But he didn’t yell. Silently, he walked over to my bed and laid down next to me. Reluctantly, I made space for him and settled my neck in the crook of his arm.
He pressed his cheek to my forehead and I felt his tears. My dad was crying.
“I love you,” he whispered. “And it hurts my feelings when you tell me you hate me, even if we’re angry.”
Hurts his feelings?
Honestly, before that moment, I don’t think I ever thought about hurting my father’s feelings, or whether he had feelings at all.
“I’m… sorry.” I whispered quietly and felt my own tears well up in my throat. I was so quick to say that I hated him, but in the darkness of my room, tears flowing between us, I had no words to explain that my hatred had been an empty threat.
I loved my dad.
At the cusp of adolescence, my adversity to my father’s authority was only just beginning. Our complicated relationship was a combination of many things. Just being of different sexes made understanding each other difficult. And if one of us liked or disliked something, you could be sure that the other felt equally passionate about the opposite.
We were Newton’s Law, in father/daughter form.
There were other obstacles in our relationship, too. The person each of us were closest to, my mother, was diagnosed with cancer when I was 10 and my youngest brother was four. The ever-looming threat on her health highlighted a frightening prospect : my dad as a single parent.
Me? Alone in a house full of boys? I was not okay with that.
Him? Alone with three kids? He must have been terrified.
My teenage years became the perfect storm of hormones, personality differences, and family hardship. And these equal and opposite reactions to each other were ugly and painful, not just for me and my dad, but for our whole family – my mom, who tried her best to keep the peace, and my brothers, who had no escape.
These days, the hills we thought were worth dying on are now in distant memory.
The path that brought us to a healing place in our relationship was fraught with the hardest experience of our lives – caring for and losing my mother. We’ve learned the hard way that life is too short to spend it at war with each other.
As I think about that journey, I’ve realized that every relationship – to our parents, spouses, siblings, children, friends, coworkers – is a journey in recognizing the way that God sees that person.
We have to give up on our expectations, because more often than not they are harmfully unrealistic, capable of inflicting decades of damage onto our relationships. When we inflict our expectations on others, we try to rewrite their story and their character, but that’s not our place.
God is the Author of our faith.
Where once I used to label my father’s heart by his weaknesses and the tough exterior he portrayed, now I am learning to recognize his heart by his strengths and the extreme tenderness at his core. I’m learning to accept the context of his life – the way he was raised, the things he has been through – as part of who he is, a part that I cannot fix or change or control.
When I began to recognize his story, the story God is writing with his life,
I stopped trying to make it about me and my expectations.
And here’s the funny, amazing, miraculous thing : my father’s strength and compassion for his children since losing my mom six months ago has astounded me. My expectations, my worry and concern over how things would go, my worst fears have been blown away.
Daddy, I love you and I’m so thankful that God made you my father in this story of ours.
Have you had a hard relationship with one or both of your parents, or another family member? How have you seen God’s healing and grace in those relationships? What is the best thing you have done to initiate change in those relationships?