The Embrace

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

Photo by 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.