I sat in a chair beside my favorite curmudgeon as he slept this evening. He’s moved from a respite visit at The Sweet Life to assisted living at Brighton Gardens. I arrived for my 5:00 p.m. visit about five minutes early, and gently spoke to him. He did not hear me. Since I don’t like to be awakened by having someone touch my arm and speak loudly, I figure no one else does. I took a chair, opened a browser on my little laptop, and surfed the net.
Ten or fifteen minutes later, my cell phone rang and Jay awakened. I quickly handled the call, then turned to speak to Jay. His smile on seeing me filled my heart with a rush of unbridled joy. The love which I feel for Jabez J. MacLaughlin might seem out of proportion to the relatively short time that I have known him. It might seem incongruous considering our differences and my initial consternation at some of his political views (or the difference between his and mine, I should say). But that love dwells in me, though I cannot explain it.
My relationship with my own father could be described as tenuous. I know that he loved me as well as he could. He took enormous pleasure in the fact that I followed in his father’s footsteps, even though I didn’t go into criminal defense, which he thought would have suited me. He wanted me to strive for the kind of financial success that his own father had attained but he reckoned without my proclivity for lost causes and my lousy business sense. But at the time of his death, I seemed headed towards professional success by standards he understood. That satisfied him.
I thought that I had forgiven my father all of his failings. I’m a cradle Catholic, drilled with the “Lord’s Prayer”, which says, in part, “Lead us not into temptation, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I don’t care much for the Catholic Faith and cannot particularly claim to be a Christian. But I embrace the idea of forgiveness. Until last winter, when I found myself inexplicably falling into an emotional quagmire, I thought I had forgiven my father. I would say, “If my mother, who suffered considerably more at his hands than I did, could forgive him, how can I do less?”
But in reality, I pushed my anger and pain underground. As anything suppressed will do, it leached out. I told myself, “The past is in the past. The past has passed. It’s over. Forget it. You are responsible for your life.” I believed all of that. I believe in accepting responsibility rather than blaming others for your unsuccessful choices. But choosing not to live in a state of blame does not mean that one has healed. It means that one looks forward, not backward; but those painful experiences still scarred me. Those scars festered. Untreated, the infection spread.
I’ve done a lot of reading lately about post-traumatic stress syndrome suffered by soldiers who see combat. I think that’s what happened to my Dad. I think that walking the Burma trail in the midst of unrelenting fighting changed him. I’m not excusing him. He battled alcoholism but his family paid for rehab programs. He had every chance to recover. He made choices. But I also believe that war impacted him in ways that I cannot comprehend, and I think that powerful force never released its grip on him. His wounds also went untreated. They gripped him and wrung the resistance out of him.
I might be wrong about this, but if I am right, that explains a lot. I choose to believe that my father had essential goodness that became corrupted and bent due to the brutality of what he saw on the Burma trail and that he never recovered. And I choose to believe that the violence in our home led me to seek destructive relationships, and eventually corrupted my ability to have healthy relationships — though not irreparably. My corruption can be remedied. I can heal.
In understanding this, I’ve been able to truly feel a sense of peace and forgiveness towards my father. In some way that I cannot articulate, having Jay MacLaughlin in my life — being his daughter-in-law, having that connection — has given me the breathing space to forgive my own father for the weaknesses that led him to horribly mistreat his wife and children. My closeness with Jay developed over the last two years. I treasure it. He is a good father; and I love him. In an odd way, I feel as though loving him has been easy in the way that loving my own father never could be. I don’t know if Jay will ever understand this gift that he has given me. All I can do is return his love; and that I shall do, to the last breath, breathed by one of us, and beyond.
And that, my dear little ones, is why Jabez Jackson MacLaughlin is my favorite curmudgeon — because he has been a father to me, and I desperately needed one.