He was told he had two years to live, longer if he quit drinking. He didn’t quit. My ex-husband, Doug, decided that if he was going to die, he was going to do it his way and to hell with anyone that disagreed. This was nothing new, he was an alcoholic who thought only of himself. He had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and hepatitis C.
The cirrhosis began to seriously affect him about nine months after the diagnosis. My two sons, 28 and 24, would stop by his condo often to help but soon became overwhelmed. He was lapsing in and out of reality, often displaying the mentality and habits of a 4-year-old child.
We had been divorced several years. Like so many abused wives with children, I didn’t have the resources to leave him and my children suffered greatly for this. I was chronically ill and in need of a kidney transplant.
Knowing my children could not cope with this overwhelming catastrophe, I packed my things to make the three hour journey from western Maryland to Virginia. I had no idea how long I would be there.
I arrived at Doug’s home to find my sons there with him. One son was asleep on the couch; the other was awake but exhausted. They had no idea how to care for their father in his rapidly declining state of health. I was completely overwhelmed with a sense of chaos and barely knew where to begin.
My sons did not want me there. They were concerned for my health because after finally receiving a kidney transplant, my suppressed immune system made me extremely vulnerable to infection.
“You can’t stay here Mom. You’ll end up in the hospital. He throws up all the time and it’s too dangerous here” my eldest son insisted. “Plus, he was such a bastard to us all, Mom, he doesn’t deserve for you to be here doing anything, nothing!”
“How can you even be near him after everything he put you through?” said my youngest angrily.
Their hostility toward him was palpable. He was rarely present in their young lives and when he was, he was drunk, angry, belligerent and abusive. With so much resentment and anger toward him it was difficult for them to display any genuine kindness. However, this was their dad and they felt obliged to be there.
I asked where Doug was and was told “He’s in his room and is really bad, Mom. Sometimes he doesn’t know where he is, sometimes he just pulls his pants down and decides to relieve himself wherever he stands, he gets mad when he can’t do things like use the stove and then other times he knows everything that’s going on.”
Against their wishes, I started down the hallway to his room. I was aghast at what I saw. The strong, strapping, 6’2” red-headed Irishman I had married decades before was now a pale, thin, frail shadow of a man sitting on the bed with his head hanging down in his hands. He wore nothing but a diaper.
He looked at me and began to cry. Just as I had once done with my young sons. I rocked him gently and assured him everything would be alright. I don’t know how long we sat there before he eventually fell asleep, weary from sobbing.
He didn’t know who I was.
I realized how unprepared I was to deal with his illness, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually. The extreme dysfunction of our family relationships was heavy in the air, suffocating my hopes of coming together to find forgiveness for this man my children resented so much.
I returned to the living room and upon seeing my face, confirmed what my sons already knew; the man that was once their father and my husband was now gone forever. In a way, he had already died. Not a word was spoken for several minutes.
I decided then and there that not only was I going to help, but I was going to teach my boys, these young men in front of me, the most difficult yet powerful lesson of their lives – forgiveness.
It’s the least I could do for them. Otherwise, what hope would they have escaping the very real possibility of becoming the same angry, bitter and miserable man their father was; incapable of love, not only for themselves, but for children they may one day have?
I looked at them and said, “That man in there is not the same person I married. He’s not the same man that was so awful to us all these years. He is just a frightened child now and you have to see him as that and find a way to forgive him.”
There were good days when he remembered everyone, knew what was happening and seemed happy, at times even laughing when I would recount some silly anecdote from the past. It was in those rare moments, I got a glimpse of the man I once knew and loved.
However, when my boys witnessed these moments, they derived no joy from them. So much emotional damage had been done, not only in the past, but even now, with the knowledge he would soon be gone, Doug offered no apology or attempts at amends. He gave them nothing.
He was finally admitted into a hospice center in Washington, DC. He was heavily medicated with morphine, opening his eyes only once for a last glimpse of the world he so often professed to hate. His breathing became labored and shallow each moment he remained lingering in the shadows between life and death.
My youngest son was with him when he died. He was there visiting and as he was on his way down the hallway to leave, a nurse called to him and said, “Don’t go, son, it’s time.” He stayed with Doug and watched as he drew his last breath. He told me later he wondered if Doug ever sought forgiveness from the God he swore never existed. I told him that in my heart, I believe he did. My son disagreed.
My oldest son, upon hearing the news, showed no emotion. He looked at me and exhaled a long sigh of relief, releasing the stale, dysfunctional oxygen he had held inside for most of his life. As he turned to walk away, his tense shoulders dropped and his step lightened. His entire body had exhaled and relaxed for the first time in years.
My sons rarely think of their father and not much is spoken of him. There are no heartwarming stories to revisit or amusing stories to recant but they both say they are glad they were there for him, even though he was never there for them.
They could have easily justified leaving him in his condo to die alone, wallowing in his own self-pity and discontent but they didn’t. They chose to stay. They cleaned up after him, wiped his mouth, fed and dressed him and propped him up in his chair to watch his favorite TV show in case there was a chance he could enjoy it on some level.
As I watched them tend to him, I witnessed the small seed of forgiveness begin to take root and grow. Although I don’t think they realized it at the time, they had in their own way, forgiven him. They were finally free.
They buried their father and along with him their tears, mourning a father they could have had, and their fears of becoming the man and father he was.
I am proud of the strong and compassionate men they have become.
Forgiving their father allowed love to fill the space in their hearts that once housed all the sadness, pain and memories of abuse.
As fathers, they’ll make mistakes. They’ll raise their voices and sometimes lose patience with their children; but they’ll always be kind and loving fathers who hold the tender hearts of their children gently in their hands.
I left my home to help a man I once loved die and to teach my sons how to find and grant forgiveness.Instead, through his death, it was their father who taught them to forgive. He had, for once, given them something – the freedom of forgiveness.
This story first appeared September 19, 2015 at The Good Men Project. Permission to reprint given by Mary McLaurine.