If you read my book Pieces: Finding the Missing Piece is Easier Than You Think, you know that my relationship with my father has always been estranged. Though he lived in the same house with us until I was 13, it was as if he wasn’t there. The emotional detachment proved to be just as detrimental as him not being there at all.
As the years have gone by, I’ve learned to cope and forgive — eventually, I stopped using his absence as an excuse for my poor ability to make sound decisions about men and took responsibility for my part. I even took the advice of a good friend and decided to reach out to him regularly (read: sporadically) just to say “Hi.” Looking back, it paled in comparison to what I would eventually do in a time that truly mattered.
I got a call from my dad back in February that his wife died. She was only 53 years old. I was genuinely sad to hear that she passed and, almost instinctively, I asked him if he’d like me to come to the funeral. His immediate response was “yes.”
When we got off the phone, I was mad at myself — “whhhhyy did you ask if he wanted you to come, Alisha? You have barely spoken to him let alone seen in him in years… now you’re going to attend his wife’s funeral?”
Ugh. Me and my “What can I do to help?” mouth.
Over the next week or so, we talked briefly about arrangements, time of the home going service, etc and finally, the day arrived.
As I pulled into the church parking lot, I felt like a 13 year old girl all over again. My cheeks flushed, I felt my body temperature rising. Tears welled in my eyes — I was coming to this funeral as a stranger, of some sort. I didn’t know who would know me or recognize me. I didn’t know if I should have a fit of anger for all of the years I felt abandoned or if I should suck it up and stand strong for him in his time of need.
I sat in my car, warring with myself — should I approach this as a woman who had spent too many days and nights missing her father or, as seminary had taught me, a pastoral care giver — someone who could stand in the gap during this person’s hurting time? That would require me to get over myself. Today.
As I walked into the church, I wondered around because I didn’t know anyone, nor did I know where to sit. I mean, I’m “family”, but I have no familial connection with these people. The hem of my wool coat became the victim of my nervous energy. I’m sure I rubbed the dye out of its crimson fabric.
I got a few glares and stares from people; my childhood pastor recognized me and introduced me to some of his ministerial colleagues as “John’s daughter”. The look of confusion matched the cowering heart inside my chest.
They had no idea who I was.
As I entered the sanctuary, a member of the u(r)sher board asked, “Are you with the family?” I hesitated. “John is my dad…” I whispered. I quickly tried to kill the awkwardness. “But I can sit in the back; I’ll let them have their space.” Mother Deaconess Usher looked at me and said, “Well if you’re family, sit up front!”
I quickly declined.
One of my sisters came to the funeral and sat next to me. I was relieved to have her there. Someone else to share the piece of the “who are you again?” pie with.
When the funeral was over, I ran into an associate of mine who I’ve known for a few years — we were both totally confused as to why the other was there. I learned that she was the cousin of my dad’s stepdaughter.
“How did you know Cathy?”, she asked.
“She was married to my dad.”
Silence. Her hazel brown eyes shifted quickly trying to put two-and-two together.
“Yes, John’s my dad.”
“Were you at so-and-so’s wedding?”
“Well, were you at your dad’s wedding back in the day…?”
“Soooo….” Poor thing. She was fishing for the right thing to say.
“That’s crazy,” I helped her out a bit. “We’ve known each other all this time and you had no idea that he was my dad!”
We did as what many Black women do in times like these, when pain is present but we just don’t know how to respond — we hugged, gave that “Mmmmhmm!” complete with a “Girl, yeen gotta say nothing; I get it!” side-eye and went on our way.
Finally, my sister and I went outside to find my dad. They were preparing to caravan over to the burial site and I wanted to say goodbye before I had to head off to class.
The three of us made small talk — a knot formed in my chest — my eyes started tearing up.
I didn’t know why.
I just saw this pain in his eyes that I had never saw before. This emotion. Something that was severely absent in our experiences with him. The knot moved its way from my chest to my throat. I swallowed. The knot took residence in my stomach.
Finally, my dad said something to the two of us that, ’til this day, sits with me at night. We were saying our final goodbyes, giving the best “daddy, we can’t stay” excuses possible and he said to us:
“Now that Cathy’s gone, I’m going to need y’all more now than ever before.”
My dad has three daughters — three — and we’re his only children.
And for the first time in my life, he told us that he needed us.
I’ll let that sit with you for a minute.
In all the absence and vague understanding of self because of our distant relationship, in all the blame and shame that comes with broken hearts and not-quite-healed feelings, none of it mattered anymore.
His vulnerability set us on a path of restoration, hope even.
In hindsight, I now know that the “knot” was compassion. It had found its way from a broken hearted teenage girl to a woman who’s seminary journey had taught her that caring for the hurting requires you to transcend what you think, or feel, or what ideas you have about a person. You simply channel God’s compassion for His/Her people and you let that compassion do the work. If you’re lucky, that same compassion will do a work in you, too.
Since then, we’ve spoken nearly once every week. Sometimes more time than a week goes by, but there hasn’t been a month that we have not spoken.
The conversations circle around the usual: life, school, work, etc. The funny thing is: we have spoken more in the last three months than we have in the last 15 years, I’m sure.
This is what the compassion of God can do.
I don’t share this to bring shame or glory to anyone involved. I share this to let you know what is possible through Jesus Christ if we simply let the same compassion that lead Him to the Christ do its work. If we will simply move beyond the longstanding barriers between ourselves and the “other” and let compassion do its work.
What barriers of pain are present in your life that are keeping you from showing compassion to others? Talk about it in the comment section or on Twitter/Facebook using the hashtag #WHHMS!
On the Chase,