How a Daughter Came to Forgive Her 'Worthless' Father | Opinion

"I never called my father 'worthless,'" author Leslie Leyland Fields wrote on her blog back in 2015. "That was his own word for himself. I had other words to describe him. But in a way he was right."

It turned out Fields, an award-winning author and editor of 12 books, including Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers, had unfinished business with her father, and was flying from her home in Kodiak Island, Alaska, to see him in the rehab facility in Florida he now called home. He'd suffered a stroke the week before and had difficulty speaking.

"I'll see you in about three weeks!" Fields said, trying to make her voice sound cheerful. Her siblings were joining her, too.

"I'mmm . . . not . . . worth . . . ," he stumbled.

"Of course you're worth it!" wrote Fields, who appeared on Our American Stories in 2016. "But I knew instantly what he meant. In the human balances of justice and fairness, he had done nothing to deserve this kind of sacrifice and attention from his children."

Fields went on to describe life with her father. And without him.

"He could not or would not hold a job, leaving us impoverished and ashamed throughout our childhood," Fields confessed in her blog post. "He seemed incapable of forming relationships and treated his children as though we were invisible, except for the abuse visited upon some of us."

When Fields and her siblings grew up and moved away, their father packed his bags and moved away too, to Florida to live all by himself. "I was glad," Fields wrote.

Those three words—"I was glad"—were heartbreaking to read, for those of us lucky enough to have good dads. Those of us who are eager to see our dads this coming Sunday, and who have dads eager to see us.

In the next 30 years, Fields, a committed Christian, would travel to see her father only three times. "I went each time needy and hopeful that he would express interest in me, show some kind of affirmation," she wrote. "I left each time hurt, hollow. He would barely speak to me, and when he did, he ridiculed my faith. The last time I saw him, I resolved never to go back."

Eight years later, Fields broke that resolution. Her dying father needed her. And she needed to settle some unsettled business with him.

And soon, she found herself in that Florida rehab center taking care of the father who'd never taken care of her. Pushing his wheelchair around, sharing meals with him, watching TV with him and even reading aloud to him.

"In all of it, I could not shake the injustice and inequity—that every gift and kindness given, he had never shown to me," she wrote. "But something else was even stronger. A desire to forgive."

Why the need to forgive a man most people would deem unworthy of forgiveness? It was a matter of her faith for Fields, it turns out. And an obedience, as she saw things, to a God that had forgiven her for her sins.

"I remembered what I believed, that God had released me from my debts against Him, and I knew He required me to do the same for those who owed me, she wrote. "We are to 'forgive as we have been forgiven.' Could I not extend the freedom I had been given to him?"

For Christians and non-Christians alike, it is a question worth pondering not just on Father's Day. But every day we're filled with the bitterness of unforgiveness.

"I began to try, moving slowly from what C.S. Lewis calls 'need love' to 'gift love,' looking past my blinding needs as a daughter to see the pain in his life," she wrote, referring to the great Christian writer's 1960 book, Four Loves.

"Had anyone loved him?" she wondered in her blog. "How might I have hurt him?" she added.

Her road to forgiveness was not a simple one, and it wasn't a straight or easy road either. But slowly, things began to turn.

"After that visit, I knew I would return. I began praying for him, calling and sending gifts and letters," she wrote. "I realized it was not justice or equity I wanted most of all, but relief. Often, we think the cost of forgiving is too high, but we do not consider the cost of not forgiving."

Fields wasn't finished with her powerful story. The act of forgiveness, it turned out, had changed not only her life. But her heart.

Woman and elderly man hands
A daughter holds the hand of an elderly father. Ridofranz/Getty

"I found relief in releasing his debts against me, especially as I realized my father could not pay what he owed me. Nor can many parents," she continued. "I found the yoke of forgiveness, then, lighter than the yoke of hurt and hate. I found the yoke of caring for him easier than the burden of abandoning him. And love came back. Yes, in small doses. He called me 'amazing,' one day. He phoned on my birthday. When I came to visit, he didn't want me to leave. All of this was new. All of this broke my new-found heart."

How did the act of forgiving her father change Fields? "The broken and bitter parts of me are healing," she wrote. "One forgiveness has led to others and to my own apologies from those I know I have hurt. I am moving toward the person I hope to be."

How did her act of forgiveness change her father? "In the last two years of his life," she wrote, "my 'worthless' father was surrounded and blessed by the very ones he had harmed. I believe he felt loved, perhaps for the first time."

As Father's Day approaches and passes, we can all learn something from this story. Fields shared what she learned to close out her blog post. "We cannot heal all the broken families of the world, but we can begin here: with ourselves and our own families," she wrote. "With God's forgiveness and love, anything is possible."

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.