Strangers, Bob, My Dad, and Forgiveness

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I grew up in a family where my dad would start a conversation with anyone. At the grocery store he called the check-out clerks by their names. He stopped people on the street to pay them compliments. He helped old ladies who were struggling with their grocery bags and gave them rides to their doorstep.

It’s been a few years since my dad passed. But the side of him that I loved, was the side that would treat everyone the same, from homeless people on the street to kids in the neighborhood, to business men. He was by no means perfect, but he took time for people.

I grew up watching my mom and dad share a genuine concern for individuals. In turn, I took on an interest for people, for how they think, act, feel, and for what drives them, hurts them, and consumes them.

There is something about a stranger that allows you to forget about the insecurities, pretenses, and fears that you carry around on a daily basis. When I get on a plane or sit at a bar, I look at the person in the seat next to me as a new experience. And for as long as I can remember, strangers have always shared things with me that they have kept bottled up inside.

It is not a normal occurrence to share a beer with someone you have known for twenty minutes and end up talking about the most intimate details of your childhood. But for me, it’s as normal as it gets. People share, and I listen. I ask questions, I make connections and I walk away with a little piece of a person’s history. I have had life changing conversations with people whose names I sometimes know and sometimes do not.

It was my father that made me listen to Bob, the bipolar 67 year-old close talker. I intended to sit at the bar alone, and have a divine breakfast of Belgian waffles with warm syrup and fresh strawberries that I ordered from my barstool. But just as I reached for my hot chocolate, he came from behind me and said, “I’m going out for a cigarette.” It was as if we had come to the coffee shop together, as if I knew that the cane and the books and on the counter next to me, belonged to him. The man to the right of me said, “You just met Bob.”

My eyes were half-closed when I heard Bob’s voice again. I was taking in the sweetness of the strawberries and whipped cream.

“Having a big breakfast, huh? I just had mine. It looks good. Nothing like fresh strawberries.”

And with every sentence, the grayness of his beard came closer to my cheek, teasing me, threatening to let me feel its roughness. I chose not to ignore him. Instead I turned and looked at him, “You are right. Strawberries are the best.” It is a conversation my father would have started with a stranger and a part of me hoped that the stranger would show my dad the same kindness.

A gold coin with the roman numeral for twenty-two imprinted on it was pressed between Bob's fingertips.  He handed it to me.

“It’s been twenty–two years since I’ve had a drink.  I grew up in a house where no one talked to each other.  Can you imagine that? A house where no one talked? When I was fifteen, I realized that talking came really easy to me after drinking a bottle of wine.”

And from that point on, we stumbled through the autobiography of Bob, weaving through decades of mistakes and choices which included drugs, alcohol, family, mental illness, granddaughters, and religion.  We ended by talking about his relationship with his daughter, who has taken care of him for the past ten years, despite the years he abandoned her for his vices.  We also talked about the regret that he woke up with on a daily basis.

For ten years, I had been on the receiving end of the stories of boys and girls who described fathers like Bob.  This was the first time that I had ever talked to a father about his side of the pain.  Bob was the main actor in our discussion but guilt could have won an Oscar for the best supporting actor.  He associated guilt with everything he’d done in his life.

“I have done a lot of things that I am ashamed of.  I’ve been addicted to drugs and alcohol.  I’ve slept with prostitutes.  I’ve awakened in alleys in the dead of winter.  It just seemed like my friends went right and I went left and I had no idea how to get back to the right. I can’t get beyond the guilt.  Can you believe I even asked to be excommunicated from the church.  I went to my priest and said, 'Father, I no longer want to be associated with the Catholic Church because of all of the guilt I have.' Can you believe I did that?”

We chuckled a little bit. And then I looked him in his eyes.

“Bob, you can’t change what you have done. It’s in the past. You can either release it and move on or allow it to eat you up for the rest of your life. Either way, you can’t change the past so you have to take the steps to forgive yourself.” And he looked at me, with his eyes squinted, and asked, “But how do I let go of all of the guilt I have? How do I move on?”

And that’s when I realized that Bob represented all of the fathers I had never spoken with. The ones who were ashamed of their past and sometimes their present. The ones who wanted to do better but didn’t know where to start. I looked at Bob and in one moment, I secretly forgave my father for everything he ever did in his life….for the things I knew about and the things I would never know.  And then I forgave Bob for his own guilt and for his daughter.

That conversation bridged a gap in my relationship with my own father. Six months later, I saw Bob again. Not at that coffee shop, but in my own father’s eyes when he asked me for forgiveness.  And forgiveness was so much easier the second time around.

**NPR's StoryCorps has an incredible story about a father's forgiveness. These three minutes are life changing. Click here for the story.