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May 24, 2017

Three Words More Powerful Than “I LOVE YOU”

By: Anthony C. Chang, MD, MBA, MPH, MS

My father passed away recently… and it was profoundly sad to me that for the first few days after his death I could not shed a single tear.

I am the son of a very strict immigrant father who regularly disciplined his children with the back of his hands, the end of his shoe, or any rigid object within reach for about ten years of my childhood and early adolescence. I even begged him to hit me only on body parts that will not show a bruise as I would be so embarrassed in school. I also remember crying while watching the popular television show The Brady Bunch because it was the first time that I realized not every child was punished with such brutal physical discipline.  For those ten years, I was hit on a weekly basis for failing him in some way. Several of the egregious violations according to my father included: not mowing the lawn perfectly straight, not getting an A+ on my homework or test (even though I was usually first in my class), and of course any talking back to him even if it is courteous. My father would also hit my mother, including one time for wanting to buy the Encyclopedia Britannica for the children as if it was a meaningless luxury item. My father did not spare the other children in our family, including the girls.

I even volunteered to go work an entire summer away from home as a 13 year-old simply to escape the concentration camp milieu of my childhood. Upon viewing of the movie Prince of Tides with the scenes of child abuse, my brother and I sadly joked that those kids in that movie got off easy (compared to what we endured). For most of my adult life, as incredulous as it may be to even myself, I simply did not recognize that I was the recipient of unjustified physical punishment for unreasonable inadequacies, and, one of the several million victims of child abuse. I am the recent adoptive father of two toddlers and can understand the requisite need for supreme patience but cannot comprehend the absolute necessity of physical punishment.

I ceased to love my father sometime during those ten years of continual corporeal punishment. While I was not very fond of him in my college and medical school years, I managed to be civil with him. There were occasional contentious moments that resulted in heated altercations (including stinging comments about how I was a dismal failure as I did not remarry after a divorce and did not have children). Many of my visits home were filled with uncomfortable silent moments when hardly a word was exchanged. These visits gradually became more cordial as he became physically weakened from the ravages of his diabetes and resultant renal failure and I felt that he needed my compassion and acceptance of his old age.

Predictably, he eventually succumbed to his generalized weakness and had a cardiopulmonary arrest at home from which he could not be resuscitated in the ER. After he expired, I immediately planned a trip home but felt ambivalent: sad and numb but not nearly as devastated as one should be when one’s father passes away. The subsequent days were a blur with arrangements for his burial and other logistics. The service day came and his body was laid in wake in the casket as he wished to be cremated. The hour of viewing his body was both long and short as the entire family sat quietly and took turns to bid our final farewell in private. Towards the end of this hour, my sister met me in the outside corridor and whispered to me, “I just wanted to let you know that weeks before Dad passed, he wanted for me to tell you that he deeply regretted that he hurt you so many times, and he felt that it was because that was the way he was raised by his father. I asked him to talk to you directly but he chose not to.”

Right after these words, I had to escape to the bathroom as I could not hold back the torrent of tears, the first since he passed away. When I returned to the room, I slowly approached the casket and kissed him on his forehead, which was icy cold. I muttered to him so no one could hear me, “Dad, I forgive you.” Tears welled from my eyes and my vision blurred, but I could almost see the faintest smile on his aged and frail countenance. I cried again as I carried and pushed his casket into the awaiting hearse. Finally, when I pushed the button to start the cremation process that took place in the cold rain, I felt a tremendous sense of reconciliation with him. As my alma mater Johns Hopkins stated, veritas vos liberabit (the truth will set you free). We may be finally free: my father liberated from the guilt of child abuse all these years and I from the burden of uncertainty why he was so hard on me and why he never apologized for all those years of such harsh punishment.

It is common for us to declare “I love you” to loved ones. It takes even more love and courage to say “I am sorry.” But it takes extraordinary love, courage, and compassion to say “I forgive you.” It took all three elements for me to find a final reconciliation with my father after all these years. Forgiving does not mean I accept what happened, but that I am willing to let go of the pain, bitterness, and anger that this abuse induced. I only wished that he talked to me regarding his regret, years or even months before, so that we could have had a much closer relationship in his last moments.

Dr. Anthony Chang is a long-time supporter of The Raise Foundation and has participated in strategic planning for the organization.

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