It was the day after my third birthday when my dad strangled my mum.
I was in our flat when it happened.
I saw him on top of my mother on my bunk bed. He told me to go into the lounge in a stern voice. I obeyed.
I remember the television being on, the white leather sofas and the view of a little girl observing it all from a three-year-olds height.
The next thing I remember is sitting on my father’s knee, eating a bourbon biscuit. His hands were in cuffs and policeman were sitting all around us.
My mum survived.
It was a long time before she woke up and remembered who she was, but there was still enough of her left in her brain-damaged body to love and live as my mother. What a shock it must have been to wake up and realize you can no longer talk or move most of your body. It’s no wonder she tried to pull out her life-saving tubes over and over again.
Luckily for me, she decided at a certain point to live. I don’t doubt that if she had truly wanted to die from a soul level, she would have been able to kill herself. There is only so much screaming and crying a person can do; people have been known to die of a broken heart.
My mum woke up when she saw my brother’s and my handwriting on a birthday card. I wasn’t there to witness it but when I was older, I was told that she started crying at our names. She remembered that she had two little babies who not long ago were depending on her.
I like to think that she chose to live for us.
Dad was sent to prison, and after seven years was let out early on good behaviour. I was 10 when he got out. His attack on my mother had sent ripples through my family, and a lot of fear became visible when he was let free.
Picking up on the energy around me, I feared he might come and get me. He never did.
He used to send my brother and me birthday cards when he was in prison. Eventually the cards stopped coming, and we had no contact with our dad. It was assumed by everyone on both sides of the family that he would never see his children again.
My brother was the first to break.
He wanted to know what Dad was like. I remember the anxiety I felt whilst my brother was away and being introduced to our father. I feared for him, and a part of me felt like my brother and I became more distant by him meeting our dad. He’d become a traitor to the family.
Most of the family on my mother’s side did see it this way.
How could you see him? Why would you want to?
Disgust and anger emanated from them. Yet curiosity won out for me; I wanted to meet him too.
My dad wasn’t like I thought he’d be. I’d pictured him similar to my uncle (my dad’s brother), yet I found him to be nothing of the sort. My uncle was gentle, patient and shy whereas my dad was brash, harsh and full of energy.
I was awkward.
A teenager in puberty meeting a man she was told was her father. I wouldn’t have known any different if they’d introduced me to a random man off the street and said that he was my dad. He was a stranger to me, a strange man at that. He’d try to hold my hand, and I would squirm away with discomfort—even looking him in the eye was nearly impossible for me in the early days.
I say early days because my relationship with my father didn’t just stop at curiosity. We went through the whole process of grief together.
I got mad.
So mad that I would shout and scream and write him furious letters full of anger, bitterness and hate. I would wish that he would die, and I told him so.
Then I would feel guilt—this is the part most people don’t understand. People can understand the anger and hate towards a father that ruined your mother’s life—but they don’t get the guilt.
They would rather that I was angry forevermore than forgive.
Even the counselors and therapists I saw felt the same; when I would mention the F word, forgiveness, I would see them become uncomfortable.
In the meantime, I was got irritated when people were shocked by my story. Even more so when pity reared its head; I decided to stop telling people. I hid what felt like my sordid past, even if I was merely a victim in a story.
Despite the reactions of those around me, at a certain point I realized that the only way I would move on was if I could forgive. I realized that I was walking around with anger hanging over me, like a thunder cloud ready to explode.
It was time to let it go.
I saw what this anger did to my brother, and the destructive behaviour which became his way of expressing it. I didn’t want to be the same. I saw the nature of my grandmother who had turned into a cold, hard stone; I didn’t want to be emotionless either.
The only option was to forgive.
How? How does one forgive that?
I had no idea.
I just knew that it started first and foremost by treating my father like a person. Like someone I would meet on the street and know nothing about.
A perfect stranger.
I started acting curious, taking an interest in his life and what he liked to do. I let go of what he had done, and brought our relationship in line with the present.
The Now. The only moment that Was.
We cultivated a relationship.
After I learned to treat my father like a person, I then took it a step further by starting to act like a daughter; I let him be a father.
I started to share more of what was going on with me. I went to him for advice on things I needed help with; I let him be my guide. Interestingly enough, I found it a lot easier to share my true feelings with him, because of what he’d done to my mother. Because I knew something about him that bared his soul and made him vulnerable; I could be vulnerable too.
The rest of my family were walking around like zombies, acting like they were fine and everything was normal.
Dad showed me love and compassion; the rest of my family showed me disinterest because they were too afraid of my emotional vulnerability.
If your dad strangled your mum when you are three years old, and you were there as a witness, you’re going to have quite a lot of emotional repercussion with which to deal. But no one seemed to care. They thought that if I was well-fed and going to school, then all was la-di-da—that was their way of coping.
I didn’t want to cope; I wanted to heal. I found that I could heal the pain of what had happened by going directly to the source of it, my dad.
Nine years on, and I still have a relationship with my father.
Every time I talk to him, I send him forgiveness and love because throughout the journey of our relationship I realized a crucial thing; it is a lot easier to forgive someone else, than to forgive yourself.
My mother was crucial in teaching me about forgiveness.
She was the first to forgive. Yes, my mother forgave my father for strangling her, which left her in a wheelchair, unable to talk or barely move. She has even written him letters and sent him cards. She has a photo of him in her room, and she still smiles and giggles like a woman in love when I talk about him.
You may be thinking insanity. Or is it freedom?
When I decided to forgive, I could see two forks in the road.
On one fork was anger, separation from my father, bitterness and disappointment with what life had served me. A reason to constantly be mad at life because life had been decided for me when I was too young to do anything about it.
If only I’d been older and able to speak up and protect my mother, I’d sometimes wonder.
On the other fork was forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, connection and a future. An opportunity to move forward rather than live in the past.
I’d spent 15 years hiding my past, pretending that these things hadn’t happened in my life. I couldn’t bear the thought of continuing in the future feeling like I was somehow less than everyone else because I came from such a messy and tragic situation.
I took the only fork I could have taken.
I forgave. And I loved.
I forgave my father, and in time, perhaps he will be able to forgive himself too.
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Assistant Ed. Kerrie Shebiel/Ed: Bryonie Wise