A wife’s forgiveness for an ailing family member taught Life Lessons Essay Contest first runner-up, Kenneth Krattenmaker, the meaning of love.

By Kenneth Krattenmaker
Updated February 01, 2012
Woman holding mans hand with both of hers
Credit: Valentin Casarsa/Getty Images

That was what you noticed first: how big his clothes were, how he swam inside them. The clothes that had once fit his large frame now hung off him. He looked like a boy trying on his father’s coat.

He was always in bed, too weak to stand. He could not feed himself. He could not bathe himself. A man who once prided himself on his ability to fix things could not fix himself. The mountain of pills on the nightstand grew. It got bigger as his life got shorter.

It was easy to pity him, but how could you forgive him? He abandoned his only daughter when she was so little, leaving her to fend for herself with an overwhelmed single mother. They lived in a neighborhood where you didn’t go out at night, and not during the day, either, unless you had your friends with you. She played in the burned-out shells of abandoned cars, trying not to cut herself on the broken glass. Her mother worked two jobs and was always tired. They ate pig’s feet and tails.

But now her father had come back, living in a nearby apartment, and he was dying. He had left her before and he was going to leave her again, this time forever. She had questions, so many questions. It was hard, but she asked them all. Why did you leave me when I was so young? Didn’t you know how much I needed you? Didn’t you love me? Why didn’t you tell me you were sick? Why didn’t you seek treatment? Don’t you know this illness could have been treatable? Wouldn’t you have wanted to see your grandson grow up?

I admired my wife for asking these questions. She was gentle but firm. Each time she visited him, she got a little further, coaxing more of his life story out of him, learning all the things she never had a chance to learn growing up.

It was hard for me to watch. I saw how careful she was with him, trying not to push too hard, respecting his illness but needing answers. She moved forward when she could and backed off when he couldn’t.

She found herself ministering to the man who had left her in danger—not a bad man, certainly, just someone who didn’t know how to be a father. He’d had no one to learn from. His own father, a West Virginia coal miner, had lined up his 10 children for whippings even when they hadn’t done anything wrong, just because.

They talked. He expressed regret. He told her he wished he had done better. That helped. But it did not erase the past. A few conversations couldn’t fill a lifetime of emptiness inside her or undo the feelings of rejection that had hung over her childhood.

I had trouble forgiving him. I resented the hurt he had inflicted on the person I loved most in the world. He was not an evil man, but his actions had caused great pain.

Visits to his apartment got more and more difficult. His condition worsened. He slept, mostly. He lost focus. He drifted in and out. He had missed out on most of my wife’s life and now here he was at the tail end of his with little to give, mostly taking.

He had always been a profoundly private man in the past, but no longer. Everyone knew about his condition, and he was ashamed. Nurses came and went freely. The nurses always wore gloves. They scrubbed every surface with bleach and they left boxes of rubber gloves everywhere. He could not have felt more unwanted.

But my wife kept visiting him. And at the end of each visit, she would lean over and kiss his forehead and say, “I love you, Dad.” At first he would thank her. Over time he came to say, “Same here.” But the one thing he would never say was: “I love you, too.”

She forgave him. Not out of pity, not because he was dying. She felt sympathy for him, of course, but physical suffering alone was not enough to atone for the pain he had caused her. And it hurt him, too; he knew he had failed her. He told her he knew he had not been the father she deserved, and he apologized. But she forgave him because she had that much kindness in her heart; because she didn’t want to live a life filled with anger and resentment. She was better than that.

I had been raised in a family that believed in nursing grudges and resentments. Even though life had been pretty easy in my family, my family believed in never letting go. So when my wife let go of all the hurt her father had caused her, my eyes were opened. But there was another moment that revealed to me the scope of her power to forgive.

One day as she and I were heading home from yet another frustrating visit with her father, she kept thinking about how no one would touch him. The ubiquitous rubber gloves. The ridiculously exaggerated cleaning procedures. This was years ago, when AIDS was still poorly understood, but everyone knew you couldn’t catch it from touching a shoulder. Yet even the nurses and his occasional visitors steered clear of him as if he were radioactive.

The next time we saw him, he was lucid. They had a good talk. Then he got tired and it was time to go. She walked to him and sat down on the edge of the bed and she held him. She had hugged him many times before, but this time she embraced him fully, tenderly wrapping her arms around him. She slowly rubbed his back and kissed him on the forehead. She was in no hurry to leave. She was the embodiment of tranquillity.

In that instant, I understood the meaning of love. It was not about negotiation or tallying up an emotional balance sheet. It was about forgiveness, about accepting the people we care about for who they are, not trying to make them into someone they cannot be.

In my wife’s tender embrace of her father, I saw her providing him the comfort he had not been able to provide her when she was a child. She gave it freely and without reservation. He looked so tiny and frail in her arms—but he also looked contented. The entire time, she whispered in his ear, and I could not hear what she said.

At long last, my wife relaxed her embrace and kissed her father on the forehead. “I love you, Dad,” she said softly.

He patted her gently on the arm, looked her in the eye, and said quietly, “I love you, too, Debbie.” A few weeks later he was gone, and he was finally at peace.