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Words--they can be regretted; explained; justified; or apologized for, but never retrieved—and that’s the very thing we often long to do.

Once careless, hurtful words are expressed, like homing missiles, they find their mark with terrifying precision and devastation.  And there is no tenderer landing place than a human heart or soul.

A sure signal of the need for silence is anger. “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret,” wrote Ambrose Bierce, a 19th century journalist, who ironically often stirred up a storm of hostile reaction through his writings. Perhaps he spoke from bitter experience. Unfortunately, anger is exactly when words tend to come--“fast and furious".

Some of the words I regret the most were spoken to my father. They were true, and it’s not hard to justify them, but they caused him pain. Three months afterwards he died. I would give much to take them back.

He was 81 and very deaf due to the effects of war and factory work--but unfortunately for me, could hear better over the phone. I had not long returned from a three week visit to England, where he lived in fraught relationship with my brother and mother. It had been a difficult visit in which it was hard to watch the dynamics, and I shocked myself with thoughts I could only admit to my brother. 

I said to him one day as we walked around a hardware store together, “I thought last night of how much easier life would be if Dad died. That's a terrible thing to think about isn't it?” He didn’t say a word. I didn’t expect him to—I think he understood that I needed to say the dark thought out loud to someone, as if doing so would exorcise it. 

I had tried to make Dad see how much he hurt my brother, when he focused on what he perceived to be his faults, which really weren't and if they were, were weak echoes of his own, but it had been hard to get through the barrier of a deafness that could have been eased if only he’d put the batteries in his hearing aid, and if there hadn’t been the alcoholic haze which he induced each day from mid-morning on.

I was deeply thankful for the inner-healing and different perspective that I found on that vacation through reading Philip Yancey’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, but when Dad said to me over the phone, “I wish we’d had more time to talk while you were here, darling, I had no grace.

I said, “Well, Dad, I was there for three weeks, but you were well oiled (British slang for drunk) for much of the time.”

He didn’t react, didn’t flame with anger--if he had, it might have eased my guilt, but instantly I felt that I had hurt him—I just wasn’t sure enough to apologize immediately. I hoped that I was wrong, that as many things did, my careless words had gone over his head. But I feared they hadn't. He was always so proud of me—his only daughter, so like him in many ways—and to him, vulnerable in his love, the wound went deep. I felt his distance in the weeks that followed.

When he was hospitalized a few months later, I flew back, and through our daily visits to the intensive care unit, surrounded by the constant doleful beeping of machinery,
I hope he knew that we loved him, no matter what. He could no longer speak to us because of the breathing tube in his throat, but in his weakness and helplessness, we saw a glimpse of the person he really was, and the father and husband he might have been, without the ghosts that he used alcohol to numb. 

In his final week of life, after I had returned to Canada, the life support apparatus was removed, and during that week, my dad's mind clear, he gave my brother the priceless gift of affection, in words and touch--his blessing—we’ve talked of those precious moments many times since.

It’s been 14 years since I spoke those words to Dad. I’ve learned since then to listen better to what lies behind words than to the words themselves. Now, I hear in his words a longing for intimacy, connection and communication, and across time and space, I say, late, but from my heart, “Me too, Dad…me too.” 


Leslie said…
I have read and reread this post, contemplating if making a comment on such a complex topic on a blog is needful. Suffice to say, it gave me pause that no matter the "condition" of the person I am speaking with, extending grace is always an option. It doesn't mean we condone or excuse the behavior of the person. Thanks for posting from your heart.
Belinda Burston said…
Dear Leslie, Thank you for reading even once, let alone several times, so thoughtfully. Writing this helped me finally forgive myself and let go of a regret, maybe confession really is good for the soul. :)
Belinda - thank you for sharing this personal and vulnerable piece. Through your truth telling and journey of healing it allows all of us who struggle with letting go our own regrets to know we are not alone in our weakness and that we not only need to rely on God's love and grace to extend to others in extremely painful circumstances, but that we also need help to let go and receive His outrageous grace. Thank you for being courageous enough to share your truth to allow others to risk vulnerability in our own struggles, regrets and path to restoration.
Belinda Burston said…
Thank you dear friend. I only just now found your comment and it is heartening to be reminded that being transparent is healing to others as well as me. Thank you for your encouragement.:)

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