*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Father forgiven

by
18 February 2022

After her father died of alcohol-related liver disease, Megan Dent struggled with the ambiguity of his condition

Megan Dent

A soft winter sunset, photographed by the author’s father near his home in Santa Cruz, California, in 2017

A soft winter sunset, photographed by the author’s father near his home in Santa Cruz, California, in 2017

AS MY father lay dying in the summer just gone, I made a demand of my mother. She was on her way to see him before the end, and I asked her not to make him apologise.

“He needs her forgiveness,” my sister said. I disagreed, and I said as much to my mother. I asked her to please avoid the language of apology and forgiveness entirely.

My father died shortly afterwards of alcohol-related liver disease. Over many years, his drinking became a corrosive and seemingly unstoppable force that consumed a vibrant, loving, and highly intelligent man who rejoiced openly in the glories of life.

His dependency compromised the most important gifts in his life: his marriage, his relationships with his children and closest family, and his ability to pursue new encounters in an existence he loved.

We arrive at the paradox. My father loved existence, and his talents in it abounded. He constantly marvelled at the beauties of the natural world and the creative, resilient human spirit. And yet, through his actions, he stole many of these joys from himself. And from us.

Megan DentDriftwood gathered on the beach, photographed by the author’s father near his home in Santa Cruz, California, in 2002

A committed Anglican, I normally find resonance and relief in the doctrine of sin. But I refused to engage with the idea of wrongdoing, or even accountability, during my father’s final days, and in the weeks after his death.

With fierce combativeness, I fought off any trace that I sensed of the truth, as it was spoken gently by family, friends, and a very insightful therapist: that part of my father’s story was the fact that he’d made hurtful choices that caused us considerable pain. And that he had never acknowledged this, or apologised for it.

 

AVOIDING all of that, I submerged myself in the redemptive idea of God’s omniscience. My father now lay in the arms of a God who knew him intimately, and who alone could access the beauty of his soul, as it existed apart from this self-destruction. “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139.15).

God knew that walking alone each day after my parents’ divorce, my father took thousands of photos of intricate flowers, flaming sunsets, storms out at sea, and the driftwood that gathered in interesting patterns on the beach. And that, in a journal, he recorded his observations of weather patterns, bird migrations, and classical music. A slow-approaching thunderstorm or a particular crescendo in a Brahms symphony could obsess him for days.

He would often convey these thoughts to me in careful cursive handwriting, sealed in old-fashioned airmail envelopes and sent across the world. Among my final dispatches from him was a recording of remarkably clear birdsong, with the faint sound of a violin and piano in the background. “This is what it sounds like here lately,” he wrote.

And then it was time for him to go. His liver and kidneys failed entirely. In his home, we found large bottles of inexpensive vodka lurking in unlikely places, as if he was hiding them from himself. I wondered whether he could hear the birdsong from where he drank them, in the back, near the bathroom cabinet.

I asked my mother not to seek an apology from him, despite the innumerable ways in which he had hurt her, because I couldn’t bear the thought of it. I couldn’t bear the idea of him facing the brutal spotlight of accountability in his most helpless moment, when all he wanted was to hold our hands.

Megan DentSelf-portrait: a photograph taken by the author’s father in his home in Santa Cruz, California, in 2006

Medical literature seemed to corroborate my view. It told me in no uncertain terms that my father had an illness. It offered concepts such as genetic predisposition, and terminology such as “neurotransmitter connections” and “gamma-aminobutyric acid” to help me to understand what had happened to his brain. It soothed me to give myself over to these physiological realities. It wasn’t his fault. He had a disease.

The trouble is that alcohol-use disorders are illnesses of deep ambiguity. It is difficult to think of many illnesses in which, through an incalculable combination of decision, willpower, emotional support, and circumstance, a portion of sufferers can recover themselves.

 

AS I grieved, I found myself in a cyclical thought abyss: why couldn’t or wouldn’t my dad seek recovery?

I wrestled. The very insightful therapist told me that Carl Jung had viewed alcoholism as inextricably linked to God. In a letter, Jung wrote of the experience of meeting Rowland H., whose alcohol problem was influential in the founding of Alcoholics’ Anonymous: “His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.” And Jung quoted Psalm 42: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.”

Here, I sensed my dad. A thirst for beautiful experience — for sublimity (a word he loved) — ran through him. After some difficult life experiences, alcohol made him feel better; it made him feel closer to who he wanted to be.

The tragedy is that, in seeking wholeness anywhere other than in God, we end up in the darkness of self-delusion. Jung’s view is predated by St Augustine, who understood sin as closely related to concupiscence, “immense desire” or “ardent longing”. When misplaced or confused with many of the worldly and bodily excesses that tempt us, concupiscence leads us into the ever-elusive maze of our own egos.

Indeed, the American Franciscan Fr Richard Rohr insists that sin and addictive disease are deeply related, and that they involve a failure of knowledge: “By definition, we can never see or handle what we are addicted to.”

Part of sin’s power is its trickery, its slipperiness. Rohr writes: “As Jesus did with the demon at Gadara, someone must ask, ‘What is your name?’”

After this slow approach into the idea of sin, in Advent, I tentatively allowed the language of judgement into my grief. Advent comprises not just a desire for a loving presence, I realised, but a yearning for the truth, upon which love depends — for the truth to be shown and judged in all its ugliness and senselessness and sadness.

I had construed judgement as the brutal light of accountability — fluorescent, unsparing — from which I tried to protect my father. I had forgotten that, in Christ, this same light becomes that “radiant dawn” of salvation for which we long: it gently emerges from the darkness, and its hues are those of mercy.

Megan DentAfter a snowstorm on the Oklahoma prairie, photographed by the author’s father near his childhood home in Oklahoma City, in 2019

If sin is illness, then salvation is healing. And we need that gentle light of judgement to heal, to save. St Augustine knew this, writing in his Confessions: “What I know of myself I know only because you shed light on me, and what I do not know I shall remain ignorant about until my darkness becomes like bright noon before your face.”

In longing for Christ, we long for an end to artifice and façade, and for the coming into flesh of a truth so magnificent, and yet so simple, that it cannot be denied, cannot be hidden away with any of the smoke and mirrors that help us to hide from ourselves, as my father did.

 

IN THE first canticle for morning prayer during Advent, taken from the book of Isaiah, judgement is central to the rescue for which we beg: “Say to the anxious: ‘Be strong, fear not. Your God is coming with judgement, coming with judgement to save you.’”

Reckoning with all of this meant looking with honesty at the pain that my father’s illness caused me, and the dark shadow that his slow deterioration cast over my mind and spirit. Like many adult children of alcoholics, I’ve battled a series of depressive episodes in my life, and struggle with anxiety and anger that I often can’t explain.

So attentive was my father to what Seamus Heaney named “the unregarded floor” — those unnoticed miracles that appear to the present consciousness — that I struggled to acknowledge the uncomfortable reality that he wasn’t truly present. Between him and the world, between him and me, between him and God, a barrier had been placed.

I’ll never fully understand who exactly built that barrier, or whether it was truly unassailable, or whether things could have been any different. But I have needed to confess, to myself, that it was there.

My love for my father remains fierce and unconditional. But exoneration without examination robs him of the substance, the consequence, and the dignity that he deserves. It does away with the fullness of his humanity. He was a maddening, volatile, beautiful, irresistible man. He loved me. He caused me pain.

His failing body was the reality that truly expelled all metaphor and abstraction. These were the vehicles that he used to communicate his struggle. “I’m feeling under the weather,” he would say. “Got a case of the blues.” “Can’t make it, I’ve got some errands to run.”

The liver and kidneys had failed. He answered the doctors’ questions honestly. He had been abusing alcohol for his entire life, he confessed.

And when the euphemisms were gone, he was there, our father, and he heard the birds sing their songs of terrible sorrow and of sublime joy. Both.

And in his jaundiced eyes, I saw the softness of relief.

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Forthcoming Events

6-7 September 2022
Preaching as Pilgrimage conference
From the College of Preachers.

27-28 September 2022
humbler church Bigger God conference
The HeartEdge Conference in Manchester includes the Theology Slam Live Final.

More events

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)