A Prodigal Daughter’s Tale

Most people consider it transformative simply to let go of past mistakes. Some prefer to outrun them, hoping they won’t chase them right into a brand new year. I let mine catch up with me. I had feared this might undo me. Yet at the threshold of this New Year, I find myself breathing rare, clear air.

For most of my life, I confused taking responsibility for my own errors with taking on the baggage of others. The blame game is very big in my family. We all seem to want to “tag” one certain person with our entire, collective load. Then that person gets to be “it” — and the rest turn and run. Misery, we love to share; responsibility, we don’t.

In late 2003, I was laid-off from my position at Principal Financial. Our entire Phoenix service office was eliminated. No longer able to afford the place I was renting, I was about to find myself homeless, as well as unemployed. So I did something I never thought I would ever do. I called my father and asked if I could move back home until I could find another job.

We were totally estranged for three years. Since that time, we had rather tentatively reconciled, but there was still a lot of distance between us. I regarded having to move back home with him one of the most humiliating choices I had ever had to make. I was the Prodigal Daughter, slinking back from my hog-slops to eat crow.

Of course, most of the family had long since sided with him. We are, supposedly, an enlightened and well-educated clan, but of course the fact that Dad is heterosexual (and rather wealthy) had something to do with most of my relatives’ having found his point-of-view more credible than mine. Just as the fact that my sister is downright rich and happily married to a man, seems to have made her everybody’s favorite relative. I, quite on the other hand, have been relegated to the status of “Black Sheep.”

While my folks and I were not speaking, my mother had to be moved into the dementia ward of an elder care facility. By the time Dad and I reconciled, Mom no longer remembered who I was. And of course, there’s been much bitter gossip about this among the relatives. I get to take full responsibility for this, too.

What we have here is not just another, run-of-the-mill blame game; it’s the Super Bowl. Have I got good reason to be angry? Certainly I do. My gay and lesbian friends (who have become more of a family to me than my own kin) tend to understand what I’m feeling better than the straight ones do — though too often, they speak of the situation as if my being a lesbian very simply explains it all. Just as much of my family would cast me as the villain — an uncaring daughter (“selfish hedonist?”), who valued her “lifestyle” over her elderly and ailing parents — to my friends, I get to be the heroic martyr.

In truth, I don’t want to be either. As this tumultuously-eventful year draws to its merciful close, I merely hope to make sense of it all. “God doesn’t just lead you to it,” a good friend of mine likes to say, “God leads you through it.” There must be something I’m supposed to learn from these past few years, and I can’t believe it’s simply that I ought to sit around, feeling sorry for myself. For, through it all, God has taken the most tender care of me. I have come to see that in what really matters in life, I am richer than ever before.

It couldn’t have been easy for my dad to invite me back home. Although I feel that his anger at me was only partially justified, he still had to feel he had as much to forgive me for as I felt I did him. And of course, there were all those relatives, hovering helpfully around to remind him how sorry he ought to feel for himself. Needless to say, my return to my childhood home was strained with tension.

I stayed with my father from Halloween until Valentine’s Day (we didn’t plan it that way; it was simply how it all worked out), and those three-and-a-half months, until I landed my current job and moved into my own apartment again, could have turned into what I’d been so afraid they might be: pure H-E-double- hockey-sticks. That they become something else entirely can be nothing short of the work of a gracious God. At long last, my father and I were able to work out our differences, simply calling a truce and setting our blame game on the shelf. I was grateful that he’d given me a safe harbor during a crisis, and, as I was to learn, he was grateful just to have me back. What I had dreaded as a time of horror and pain, I now look back upon as one of the happiest interludes in my life.

Does he still think that he’s the one who had to forgive me? Very probably. Do I still believe it was more the other way around? Of course I do. But winning the blame game can turn out to be a mighty hollow victory.

It doesn’t matter that my dad now loudly proclaims his acceptance of my “lifestyle.” I would still be a lesbian, no matter what he thought of it. It wasn’t something I could choose, one way or the other. And if I had no choice in the matter, then certainly neither does he.

We feel better when we can blame someone else for our troubles. It has become the road to fame, riches, and political power, in our society, to tell people that all their woes are somebody else’s fault. We can all plainly see the misery it has caused to sexual minorities, who are so viciously scapegoated for the failures of heterosexuals. But the blame game is turning us all — gay and straight — into a nation of children who never grow up.

I am ashamed that I wasted so many years feeling sorry for myself and blaming my family for all my problems. Were my parents to blame, at least to some degree, for why my life has been harder than it had to be? Of course they were. They’ve been adults for longer than I have been alive, whereas for much of the earlier portion of my life, I was a relatively-powerless child, with far fewer options. But well into my own adult life, I went right on expecting them to take the rap for everything that went wrong for me — even when my calamities resulted from the choices I myself had made.

My real “screw-ups” had nothing to do with being a lesbian. Sure, I’ve made some bad choices in relationships, but certainly no more than those made by many of the straight folks I know. Mostly, my bungles involved money — which I never seemed to get the knack of hanging onto or using wisely. Time and again, I had to be bailed out of a financial fiasco, and of course, it was usually Good Old Dad who rode to the rescue. Until I was well into my thirties, I handled money like a teenager, fresh from home and living, for the first time, in the college dorm.

I was able to repair my bad credit (again, with help from Dad), but even now, though no longer a credit risk, I have little credit built up at all. I must start again as fresh as I did when I was, indeed, a college freshman. It was precisely this predicament that left me so vulnerable to the wolf at my door when I suffered a layoff from work.

Sure, my parents might have helped me learn to use money more wisely instead of simply bailing me out of trouble every time I got into it. This may also have built up my confidence and my self-esteem…and yada, yada, yada. I can go on playing the blame game until the day I die. But at the end of my life, will I truly be able to look back at it all and proudly proclaim myself the “winner?”

The truth of the matter is that the very thing we — in our perpetual-childhood society — fear the most is the thing that can ultimately save us. We shrink from taking accountability for our choices and actions as if from the Plague. But when we actually find the strength to say, “I’m sorry, but I messed up big-time,” and then move on from there, learning the lessons that our mistakes can teach us (and indeed, this is the only way that our mistakes can ever profit us at all), we find our greatest liberation.

“I blew it” may not, at first glance, seem a very transformative thing to say. And nobody wants other people to tell them to say it. But the fact of the matter, so often overlooked, is that responsibility is power. If I am not to blame for any of the problems in my life, if I’m such an ineffectual little leaf in the breeze that I cannot possibly grow, learn, and change my own direction, then I have no reason to hope. As long as I am content to simmer in lingering resentment over the way other people have let me down or victimized me, then I am doomed to languish under their power.

To blame others is to surrender control of your life to them. How sadly ironic that, for so long, I thought I was actually taking power away from my parents by blaming them! And that it took me so many years to realize that the very action that had seemed so potentially humiliating — that of stepping up an accepting my own share of the blame — has actually proved to be the most empowering and transformative thing I could ever do. Indeed, there can be no greater act of hope.

This is exactly the truth that under girds the Christian doctrine of confession and absolution. When we admit that we’ve “screwed up,” we unburden ourselves of the load that had held us back and dragged us down. Christians should be the most emotionally-healthy and productive people on the face of the earth. How tragic that, all too often, we are the most neurotic.

I’m not trying to compare God to our parents. Let’s leave that to the science- worshippers who get their theology from Sigmund Freud. Not only is God our Primal Parent, “He” is the Ultimate Psychiatrist, as it is “He” Who made our minds in the first place. Could there be anything more deeply and profoundly therapeutic than to read the Gospels and take time to let them sink in?

Jesus invites us to come to Him, all of us who are weary and heavy-laden, because He will give us rest. He promises us that we can lay our guilt and sorrow at His feet, and that He will wipe away every tear and hold us, with tenderest mercy, in His arms.

Is my dad in need of those forgiving arms, too? I have no doubt that he bears much on his own conscience. The “crime” for which I’d been banished, for those three years, from his presence had nothing to do with squandering money and everything to do with having told him some truths he hadn’t wanted to hear. Tired of hearing many of our loving relatives snipe about him behind his back, tearing him apart for faults they dared not name to his face, I finally paid him the greatest honor I could: I helped him see reality. I was virtually the only one in his family who took such a bold step, and I paid for it by becoming persona non grata.

Dad has always had difficulty listening to anybody else. He can be tyrannical, and he loves to be large and in charge. A child of the Great Depression, he is a self-made businessman who built his fortunes up from the very dirt of the ground. He’s proud of that, and rightfully so. But he has precious little patience with people who can’t seem to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, too.

For most of his life, his views on social issues were about as militantly Right- Wing as Archie Bunker’s. The TV series, All In The Family, used to fill me with shame. Dad very often talked just like Archie — only there was no laugh-track at our house. There came the inevitable point in my life when I’d simply heard enough, especially of the “bootstraps” rhetoric (not to mention the occasional anti-gay slur, uttered in the blithe innocence of a man sure HIS daughter could never be “one of those”). And at that point, I had to have my say.

Having heard such bitter words from me, when everybody else was either fawning over him or had simply given up on the possibility of speaking to him plainly, I seemed a hateful, spite-filled ingrate. Somehow, my sexual orientation got mixed-up in the family gossip, right along with my genuine faults. It became yet further evidence of what a screw-up I was. And though my sister stood by me, refusing to believe the nonsense she was being told about me, she held her peace about what she thought of it all. Evidently, she thought that weighing in on the subject would do her little good.

But ultimately, my stand seems to have had some good effect on Dad. He must have taken those three years of silence to do a lot of thinking. And he seems to have thought about things he’d never had to consider before. Apologizing has never come easy to him, but both my deed and (to some extent) word, he has since made it clear that he is sorry for the part he played in our own feud — at least to the extent that he’s able to see it. Whether he recognizes it or not, he, too, has grown as a result of coming face-to-face with his faults.

After my move into my new apartment, the relationship between my dad and I continued to thrive. We built on the actual friendship that had begun to grow between us, and soon I was to see even more evidence of God’s providential care in our lives. In August, Dad suffered a massive heart attack. For weeks, he hovered between life and death, and even now, he has recovered only twenty percent of the pumping capacity of his heart. He’s still largely bedridden as I write this, and what he has left of his life will never be the same.

Two decades ago, I would have regarded what I’m now doing as a prison sentence. Moving back, at the end of my apartment lease, to live with my father and be of assistance to him and his 24-hour caregiver would have seemed like the ultimate humiliation. But I want to do it now. When I left home this last time, my heart stayed behind.

Only God knows the truth of each human situation, and only God can read each human heart. “He” urges us to forgive one another so that we can retire from the lofty seat of judge — a role for which even the wisest of us is ill-suited — and let “Him” take control. When Jesus welcomes us to the Seat of Mercy, He did so because He knew that we could be truly at home nowhere else. And that Mercy Seat can be not only our childhood home (for many of us, it is anything but that), but wherever we happen to find that it is best, at any particular time in our lives, for us to be.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son always brings me, now, to tears of gratitude and hope. Not so much because it reminds me of my relationship with my own dad, but because it calls me — and all of us — back to Someone Greater.