I do not recall giving a single Father’s Day present. There were no cards hastily scribbled on colored paper during elementary school art class. My dad never received the barbecue apron with a silly message on it. My siblings cannot recall ever giving him gifts, either. This was no joint decision; it was an instinctive, shared response to trauma.
Father’s Day reminded us of what we didn’t have: the father to do all the things we saw other fathers do. We wanted him to cheer for us at sporting events, deliver the wise quip that embarrassed us in front of our friends or pass along the wisdom that might guide us through the complexities of being young and Black in an Alabama that had little patience for the foibles of its darker citizens.
But providence did not deliver us that type of father. We shared a city, if not often a home, with a man troubled by addiction. He came and went in our lives, his presence and absence coinciding with the cycles of sobriety and relapse. For a long time, all I felt about him was anger because he seemed to care more about drugs than his children.
Our lack of relationship played a central role in my own story, and for a long time, his failures drove me to be different from him. I would be a father who was present in the lives of my children. When the time came, I would get my family to a place of safety and love.
We never developed that traditional father-son relationship, but I did forgive him before he died in 2017.
There are evils done by parents that obliterate relationships and leave marks that are hard to overcome. Nonetheless, for many of us, forgiveness is an important step in the healing process.
What changed in me that made it possible? How do we forgive people for wrongs that left real wounds, for actions that harmed not only us but other family members we love?
I forgave my father not because I concluded that his actions were not as bad as I recalled. They were. I began the long process of forgiving when I recognized him as more than a character in my story. My father, Esau McCaulley Sr., was a human being in his own drama.
We enter our parents’ lives in media res, in the middle of things. Our parents have their own traumas and disappointments that precede our arrival in their lives.
His addiction was not a personal attack on us but a poorly chosen coping mechanism that had ramifications that he did not foresee. Most people who try drugs do not believe they are making a life-altering decision, but for those with the right combination of an unhealthy environment and a genetic predisposition, it is just such a decision.
As children, we think of our parents’ decisions in terms of us. We prefer to believe that they have only ever been parents. But we are only a part of their story, not the whole of it. Just as there is an empty nest, there was a time before the nest existed.
This time before us is what informs how they treat us. There are no blank slates.
Placing my father and his addiction in his own story made his failures not less tragic but more. What was at stake was not merely a father failing a son but a whole life crumbling. His story was much bigger than the two of us. Seeing that larger story stirred my sympathy.
I found space for compassion because I believe all human life is precious, a gift from our creator. And the squandering of that gift is the greatest tragedy.
If life is our most precious gift, then time — the chance to learn and grow — is a close second. Time gives our story a chance to have plot twists and surprising redemptions. I could be upset with him for abandoning us, but I can also root for a better ending to his story, even if our relationship was not a central feature of it. After I had children, I discovered the will to hope for my father to become more than an addict because he was a person, and as a person, I wanted him to discover joy, love and peace.
Forgiving my father meant trading in a desire for revenge for past wrongs and instead wishing for the good that can come from changed behavior. I wanted him to change for his benefit, not mine.
Relocation for education and later for work meant that I often had to cheer and pray for him from a distance. Forgiveness was one thing; finding my way toward trust was another matter. His chance to shape me into the person I became is lost to history. I had to discover my purpose without him. Our stories diverged but never fully separated. That distance didn’t make my desire for a better ending less real.
I am not suggesting that all disappointed children plunge themselves into situations where they can be harmed again. My hope is that we might find the grace to see our parents as fallible human beings whose stories might still have room for a final turn toward the light. That does open us up to further distress, but it also leaves room for unexpected change.
This Father’s Day, I probably will get a present or two from our older children and handmade cards from the younger ones. My youngest daughter is still at that age when the spelling on her cards is something of an adventure. It is a joy to receive those cards because they represent the full extent of her skills at the moment of composition. I have come to see my own parenting as akin to those flawed cards. I had to begin with the skills I had and grow into a role that was more complex and difficult than I imagined.
I will inevitably disappoint my children because I am human. They also entered their father’s life in the middle of things. I had my own demons to overcome. Nonetheless, I have loved with all the tools and tricks I could glean from others. That struggle to care for them better than I was cared for as a child was the only gift that I had to give them. For all the ways that I fail, I pray that they forgive me.
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Esau McCaulley (@esaumccaulley) is a contributing Opinion writer and an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author of “How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South and“Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope.” He lives in Wheaton, Ill., with his wife and four children.
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