By Christine Venzon
One Easter Sunday when I was about 5 years old, my dad took my older brothers and me to the park. We were getting antsy after dinner at my aunt’s, bored by older relatives chatting interminably. There was a pond in the park, and my brothers were walking along the edge, throwing rocks into the water. Eager to imitate them, I reached for a stone. Somehow I lost my balance and tumbled in. (Luckily it was the shallow end.) A stranger hoisted me out. He carried me, soaked and shivering, to Dad, who had been heading back to the car, oblivious to the drama.
Dad’s response: first he yelled at my brothers for not watching me. Then he got us home and dressed me in dry clothes—including, my mother would later discover, my brother’s underwear.
From Sunshine to Storm
That was my father—a man who genuinely loved his family but didn’t always know how to show it. He was quick to lay blame when things went wrong and wasn’t afraid to raise his voice or his hand in anger. His sudden swings turned happy memories into painful ones—the unpredictability adding to the hurt. Like the family dinner that ended with cherry pie for dessert—and me being slapped and sent to my room for not eating the crust. The bitter, not the sweet, lingered longer.
Later my mother told me that when she announced she was expecting me, he ranted instead of rejoiced. He said they already had too many kids, and he hadn’t planned on another; he accused her of having an affair. That explained a lot, I thought: I was not only unwanted, I was a mistake—his mistake, a living reminder.
Eventually I finished school, got a job, and moved away. I wasn’t close to my dad, but if asked I would have said I’d forgiven him any wrongs he’d done. I wasn’t exactly the perfect kid, after all. Water under the bridge. No point in dwelling on the past.
Reversal of Fortunes
Two events collided to explode the facade. First, my freelance writing income took a nosedive. Regular clients sent fewer assignments and then stopped entirely. After years of supporting myself, I had to move back with my parents. Thrilled I was not.
I found new clients, and the steady income fueled hopes of getting back on my feet. Then that dried up too. I spent days holed up in my home office, writing, pitching story ideas, emailing résumés. But I was a seller in a buyer’s market. Going rates for freelancers were miniscule.
At the same time, my dad starting showing signs of dementia. He tried to drive our neighbor’s car one night, mistaking it for ours—and took the cat with him. He melted a thermal coffee carafe on the stove top, thinking it was the old metal percolator. I would find him on the front porch at 3:00 in the morning in his underclothes—maybe checking the neighborhood for people acting strange?
The regression continued. Dad could be sweet and endearing, even witty; also frustrating and patience-trying. He was always a lot of work, most of which fell on Mom—getting him dressed, taking him to the bathroom, coaxing him to eat breakfast. The hand-wringing trips to the doctor and the occasional hospital stay. The hair-pulling maze of Medicare and medical bills.
Me—I just I picked up the slack, cooking and cleaning and watching Dad so she could get away for church and a few outings when she had the energy. Everyone said I was such a good daughter, taking care of my parents like that. It was God’s will, bringing me home just when they needed me most.
If this is God’s will, I wanted to say, he has a wicked sense of humor.
Suffer Little Children . . .
All the while my hostility simmered. At first it was minor annoyances: Dad’s childish whining, refusing dinners I’d fixed. The more feeble he became, the more I seethed. His mere helplessness disgusted me. Yet it was perversely satisfying to see him brought low, this tyrant who had towered over me all those years.
But it was a double-edged sword that sliced me too. After spending half my life trying to get away, here I was—stuck with him. And all those memories I’d tried to put behind me came up, reenacting our painful past.
Things got toxic. I raged, slammed doors, kicked. When I tried to apologize, more complaints came out, doubling my mother’s grief. I could see what I was doing to us all, but I couldn’t stop.
I tried to reason my bitterness away: Dad grew up in a different time. He hadn’t really had a role model. His own father had come from Italy to America when Dad was 2 and sent for him 17 years later. When they met, they were strangers. I tried to pray it away: “Lord, take these feelings away, because I can’t do it myself.”
Instead, God gave me a vision.
. . . Of Such Is the Kingdom of Heaven
My mother had been sick one day with a stomach bug. She was in the bedroom lying down, and Dad padded in. He sat on the edge of their bed, watching her hopefully, eating a cookie and dropping crumbs down his shirt. He looked so like a lost child, helpless and confused. I’d seen him that way only once: when my brother died. Dad stood at the casket at the viewing before visitation, and when no one else was looking, he gently, hesitantly patted my brother’s hair. Like a child told, “Pet the kitty,” he was unsure, afraid of doing it wrong.
At that moment I think I saw Dad as God did. I also saw myself: helpless and confused, flawed and failing. And both of us were in need of forgiveness—forgiveness from God, which we had received, and from each other, which was the problem. Despite what I’d told myself in my head, I had never forgiven my father from the heart. It took that moment to soften my heart and crack it open to forgiving. And to open my eyes.
I started to understand why God hadn’t whisked away my bitterness. I had to open the wound and clean it out. Otherwise, like a festering infection, it would plague me the rest of my life. I had to learn true humility and charity. You can’t forgive without them.
It didn’t come overnight. Healing takes time. When past hurts returned to haunt, I turned it into an occasion to forgive again—seven times seventy, and then some.
Last Father’s Day, my sister, our mother, and I went to visit Dad in the nursing home. He recognized us, though I don’t think he knew why we were there. He could read his Father’s Day cards, even if he wasn’t sure exactly who sent them. When we left, I told him I loved him—and meant it.
That was our last Father’s Day together. He died in September.
Turns out, people were right after all. It was a blessing that I came home when I did. For my parents, I hope. But mostly for me. A stony heart, loaded with hate, can drag you down to Hell. God gave me the chance, and the grace, to cast off the millstone while it was still day.
Christine Venzon is a freelance writer in Peoria, Illinois.
What Will Kids Say About Dad?
Dads, what do you hope is on your kids’ list?
Maybe this stirs up discomfort. There may be things you wish your kids would say that don’t match how you actually live your life. You may be living out bad habits passed down to you. Don’t give up. You can rewrite your story. This article may help: