Monday, January 9, 2012

Bitterness vs. Empathy ... Empathy Wins Every Time

2011 was another trying year in our family... lots of changes; some good, some bad. We welcomed new lives into our family, and sadly we had to say goodbye to some as well.

In September, my husband, youngest son, and I drove non-stop for 21 hours to visit my father-in-law who was in end-stage renal failure.

For those of you who have known me for a while, I have had a somewhat turbulent relationship with my father-in-law. It wasn't for lack of trying ... I did everything in my power to get him to accept me, while he did everything in his power to break up my marriage. In the end, I don't know which one of us was more successful in our attempts: he never really accepted me and I never left the family, so I guess we'll call it a draw !!!

Seeing Jack in his Hospice-provided hospital bed in his living room seemed to soften some of the bitterness I had harbored at all the jabs he had taken at me, my children, and my marriage; but I still knew to keep my distance, and out of respect, hold my tongue at what would have been an opportunity for me to have an upper hand, for once. An upper hand that would have been an empty victory, leaving me feeling hollow, I'm sure. Empathy and kindness will always win over my bitterness, my desires to get even, I'm afraid.

Even in his weakened state, there were times when he would say something totally uncalled for, like telling the Hospice worker that his son married "the wrong one" while pointing a shaky finger in my direction, and I was tempted, as I sat in his wheelchair, to roll over his oxygen line and just smile at him through clenched teeth, knowing I held all the power. Empathy won that battle.

My sister-in-law, Debbie, caught me contemplating this one time (I thought about it several times, often becoming fixated at the oxygen tubing snaking across the floor in front of me)... she didn't say a word, but smiled at me as if to say, "Oh, know you can't do that."  .... but, give him a few more opportunities to say something he shouldn't have and Debbie would literally push me up to that oxygen line threatening to cut him off... those were the times I had to shoot her the look and keep a firm grip on the wheels... ( OK, sometimes my grip wasn't as strong as it could have been and I would let her get right up to that tubing and stop her... we did get some good giggles out of the act though). Empathy won that battle.

Laughter can be healing, despite the past. My thirty years with this family has been filled with family gatherings where all would share stories about one injustice or another at the hands of their father, a bully whom all the neighborhood kids referred to as Bruno. When Bruno came home, his truck exhaust rumbling blocks away before he'd round the corner to home, all the neighborhood kids, including his own would scatter like roaches. Some times the stories would invoke laughter as the siblings would view things from the eyes of an adult, now. Sometimes, the stories would expose a raw nerve resulting in tears and pain. Stories of poorly thought out fantasies of patricide involving, axes, rat poison in the Parmesan for his spaghetti, etc...Lizzy Borden  had nothing on these kids! Common sense won those battles...

My, how in-laws act like outlaws sometimes...

One day during this final trip to see Jack, I found myself all alone at my brother-in-laws with nothing to really do to contribute to the family's needs while staying there. I had helped with the vacuuming, dishes, laundry, etc, but ran out of things to keep myself occupied. So, I located a pen, a legal pad and set out on a journey of healing; not only for myself but for my siblings-in-law whom I love dearly ...who, in addition to my husband, have made sticking around in this family well worthwhile.

I walked the two blocks to my father-in-law's home. He was all alone, his caregiver was not to arrive for a few hours yet. I tended to his basic needs; getting him a drink of water, assisting with his toileting, washing his face... ALL things that I swore I would NEVER do based on how he had treated me for these past 30 years. Empathy won that battle. 

I settled into his wheelchair again and told him that I wanted to help him give his children a final gift before he left this Earth. I wanted his permission to interview him; I wanted him to share with me his favorite, fondest memories of each of his children; all who had their own burdens and memories of their past with a father who was, for lack of better words, abusive. Many years of wrong-doing, pain, fear and tears had been experienced by his children, they each had their own crosses to bear.  It wasn't often that my father-in-law had shown a soft side. I wanted him to give that to his children; he owed them that!

He was reluctant at first, but eventually he conceded and began sharing stories of each of his children. Tender memories, loving memories, funny memories that flooded in and out of his mind as he, himself, would come and go with moments of consciousness.

Sometimes he would open his eyes and laugh, while other times he would remain still with his eyes closed, his breathing labored, saying how he was just too tired to go on.

But, go on he did, until we had compiled stories for each of his six children. I even managed to pen his memories about the day he married their mother(s) .. he had been married twice. All the stories were written exactly as he spoke them; from his lips to my pen. I didn't even change up his messages to my husband about how he didn't want us to marry. It wasn't my place to change his thoughts. Empathy won that battle.

But, as he would talk, and I would write, I was given insight into the way HE viewed things! How he saw things may not have been right, they may not have been wrong, but they were how HE viewed things. How he had embraced misconceptions and falsities as truth, how he had twisted truth into an alternate reality that HE could live with. How his own abusive childhood destines him to become the father he was; he didn't know any better.  I had the opportunity to right some wrongs, gain some clarity, offer some forgiveness and ask for some in return. And I realized that I had viewed some things inaccurately, as well.What!!?? I'm not perfect??!!! Sometimes, that's a hard pill to swallow.

I interviewed him until I could get nothing more from him. I assured him that each story would be delivered to each individual child following his death with a message about how much he truly loved them; an emotion that did find it's way into his words as he spoke. Something, that unfortunately doesn't always come across in written form as you lose the tone in translation.  Each story would be personal, private. It would be up to each one if they wanted to share with their siblings what their father had to say to them as he lay in his death bed. He seemed to have a peace wash over him throughout the whole process and I finally felt that, in some small way, he had accepted me; maybe not as a daughter, but as a person, and I'm not going to fight that battle....because empathy will win over bitterness every time.

And I left it at that. I collected my belongings, thanked him, hugged him goodbye, and left things on that good note. Although we were in Texas for two more days, I wanted my final memories of him to be ones of forgiveness, understanding, and acceptance... I wanted his final memory of me to be of those things, too. I had an opportune time to really lay all that bitterness on him, treat him as horribly as he had treated me, treated his own children, for all those years. Make him suffer and hurt and FEEL !!! Instead, I laid it all at his feet in a pile of empathy and forgiveness and walked out the door.

My father-in-law passed away on November 4, 2011, shortly after I drove under a beautiful rainbow and acknowledged God's promise of His love for us, somehow knowing that the day was going to be Jack's last on this Earth.

That evening, I typed up every message for my sisters and brothers, placing a side note letter of love to each of  them explaining to them about my day with their father and how thankful I was to have been able to provide them with this final gift from him. The entire process was, I believe,  incredibly healing for each and every one of us.

I'm so glad I didn't pass up the opportunity to heal my own wounds and bring peace and healing to so many others that I love in the process. Bitterness would have eaten at me for years to come. But empathy and forgiveness cleanses the soul.

I learned a lot that day, and I hope reading this will prepare you for a time in which you may be able to do the same for someone else; a family member or a friend.  I wish I had a final message from my father...It is a powerful, beautiful thing to do for someone.

Another life lesson learned....never, my friends, pass up an opportunity to learn.When in a battle between bitterness and empathy, empathy will win every time.

And this time, empathy not only won the battles, it won the war.

RIP Jack ... 1935-2011

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