The Space Between Us

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H_CLAIRED

We say hello and goodbye in less than two hours. The location is an eighteenth century pub in Northern England. It’s our first meeting in over a decade. The one before that dates back further than I can remember.

He’s drinking a honey-coloured lager, his back turned from the door. His wife sees me before he does, waves and says my name.

He looks older than I remember. No hair now. And there’s no looking up anymore; I’m as tall as he is with my boots on.

Our embrace is awkward. We pull away almost as soon as our bodies meet. In that brief touch, so many unspoken words slide between us. So much brokenness and missed opportunity. In his arms I feel nothing but uncomfortable.

Quickly I introduce him to his grandchildren—my nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old-son. I’m grateful for the chatter of small mouths and their immediate desire to run circles around this tavern with its wooden beams and open fireplace.

Perhaps there was a time—in the days when I wore braids and 70s flared dungarees—when I, at that same age, jumped into my father’s arms and allowed him to cradle me and stroke my hair. Perhaps then, I felt everything.

But I don’t remember such days.

I don’t know if they happened. Did I ever feel the comfort and security that little girls feel when sitting high on the shoulders of their father? Sometimes it’s easier to think I didn’t; it makes the loss of him less painful if I believe we were never close in the first place.

He is my father. And yet, he has long been the missing figure on birthdays and Christmas. His was the absent seat at my graduation. It was my mother who walked me down the aisle on my wedding day. He wasn’t around when his grandchildren came into the world with their tight little fists and crumpled pink cheeks. He missed it all.

When he stopped holding my mother all those years ago, he stopped holding me too.

And ever since, I have unwittingly tried to fill that gaping hole, to bring someone into my life that I can love, look up to, honour, and learn from. But no one has ever filled that space.

I hear forgiveness is a daily act. Not just a one-time-fix-everything kind of deal. Most of the time I feel like I have forgiven my father for disappearing from my life. There’s rarely anger anymore, only a vacant sadness.

But then I’ll see a dad with his daughter, watch how he fiercely protects her and holds her close. At those times something hard and unwelcome rises inside me. And I know I need to forgive all over again.

Aside from these occasional nostalgic dreams, I rarely think of him now. It’s easier that he’s so far away. I can turn my back on our story. It isn’t a story I want to be part of. Not because of anger, but because the space between is so wide, both physically and emotionally. I don’t know how to be part of this story anymore. I’m not sure I ever did.

After lunch and awkward conversation we say goodbye. He holds me again and says, “Call sometime.” I nod, my body stiff, anxious to create the familiar, comfortable, space between us again.

I soon return to a home 5,000 miles away, happy to know I have created a new life outside of the pain of abandonment, happy to live life without him.

But lately I’ve been asking myself this question: If tomorrow you hear of his death, how do you think you’ll feel?

So I picture his lifeless body: the hands that held me when I took my first breaths; his eyes when he told me as a teenager that he loved me more than any boy ever would. And I know I will feel something. If I let our story fade to ashes there will be tears on his deathbed. Not tears of love, but tears for a lost embrace, no matter how much hardness has formed around my heart.

This narrative has been 40 years in the making. It’s so far in the back of my mind now that most of the time I think it’s buried. But then there’s that question … the one that revives the story every time. How will you feel when he dies?

Something about the space between us has movement and importance. I can turn my back on our broken history or I can lean into it and follow the through line to the end.

Sometimes stories can take that long to unfold. We think they’re over, but as long as they walk behind us they remain alive. A story isn’t over until it is dust. Until it has been explored and faced head on, and we figure out the ending.

Stay in the story, I tell myself.

Just stay in the story.

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Claire De Boer
Hi, I’m Claire and though you may only see my words here once a month I’m part of the wonderful sisterhood of women who edit, upload and brainstorm behind the scenes of SheLoves. I was born and raised in England but pretty much see myself as a fully fledged Canadian. I spend just about all of my spare time blogging, editing and creating stories. I’ve also ventured into the world of teaching and mentor students in using writing as a tool for personal growth. My passion is to help others find the value and beauty in their stories and to find healing or self-awareness via journaling, memoir, or just "soul writing", as I like to call it. To learn more about my journey and the work I'm doing visit The Gift of Writing
Claire De Boer
Claire De Boer

Latest posts by Claire De Boer (see all)

Claire De Boer
  • Oh, heartache — the dance of the 70×7 in which we forgive and forgive and . . .
    You are stepping into the love of Christ by travelling those 5,000 miles and entering that 18th century pub and letting your daughter and son see that family is hard sometimes, but there is grace to “stay in the story.” Thank you for encouraging me to keep doing that.

    • cjdeboer

      Thank you Michele – your words mean so much. xo

  • Bev Murrill

    Claire… I have tears in my eyes as I read your story.

    I have a friend in the UK, actually now a missionary in France, but well known as a speaker in UK. His name is Gerard Kelly, you may have heard of him. I would encourage you to buy one of his recent books. It’s called The Prodigal Evangelical and it’s about why, after all these years, he’s still a part of ‘the tribe’ of faith. Through his book he tells the story of his fractured relationship with his dad, which you will be able to identify with, but it’s such a powerful story. I think you would love it. This is the link

    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=The+Prodigal+Evangelical++-+Gerard+Kelly

    My dad was distant, but I can’t imagine how it was for you. This is so beautifully written, because the pain is palpable but not overwhelming. I love what you write.

    • cjdeboer

      Thank you so much Bev. These waves of support and love that come with all the posts we writers dare to make public, give me strength and courage. Thank you for being both writer and encourager. And I’ll check out that book 🙂 xo

  • Rea

    This summer I made the difficult decision to take a family trip to see my parents. The two day drive between us is somewhat by design. The circumstances are different, but the question I ask myself is often the same “How will I feel when they die?” I still don’t know the answer to that. I still hurt when I see mothers and daughters who are close. I’m trying to forgive, to stay in the story.

    • cjdeboer

      Oh Rea – I think that sometimes it takes everything we have to stay in the story. But that willingness to do so, rather than closing the door, is what keeps us open to the possibility of a different future. Thank you for sharing your story too.

  • HBurns

    O Claire… I’m in tears after reading this post. Your bravery to tell your story of the heart-hunger in a daughters heart for the love and presence of her father.’When he stopped holding my mother all those years ago, he stopped holding me too’, undid me.
    Your choice to forgive and build your life is a testimony to the beautiful, strong person you have become. SO much love and respect xo

    • cjdeboer

      THANK YOU so much Helen. xoxox

  • Megan Gahan

    This is easily one of my very favorite things you’ve written. Which is really saying something, because I love your writing. You made your history with your Dad, and the emotions you felt in that pub, completely tangible. I felt the awkwardness, the mess of feelings, the whole thing. I know you’ve liberated a lot of hearts today, my friend. Hearts that aren’t quite sure what they’ll feel when they lose that someone. Thank you for being brave with your story. When I’m done feeling all emotional about this, I’m going to come back to it and take some notes. Beautiful, my friend. xxxx

    • cjdeboer

      Thank so much my friend. Love you xo

  • Debbie Grace

    This is so achingly beautiful, Claire. I honor your courage in being willing to be vulnerable and thank you for sharing.

    While there isn’t as much distance between my he and me as is there is between your he and you, I relate to a lot of what you write about. Stay in the story. Mmmm… such wise words. Yes. <3

    • cjdeboer

      Thank you Grace. xo

  • Holly

    “Sometimes stories can take that long to unfold. We think they’re over, but as long as they walk behind us they remain alive. A story isn’t over until it is dust. Until it has been explored and faced head on, and we figure out the ending.

    Stay in the story, I tell myself.

    Just stay in the story.”

    Absolutely exquisite, Claire. Truly.

    • cjdeboer

      Thank you Holly! xo

  • Nicole A. Joshua

    Claire, thank you for honestly sharing about the difficulty of the journey of forgiveness. This is an incredibly powerful exquisitely piece written with sensitivity, vulnerability. Beautiful.

    • cjdeboer

      Awwww thanks so much Nicole – I so appreciate you being part of the journey. xo

  • Bethany Olsen

    Aaaand you just made me cry. “A story isn’t over until it is dust. Until it has been explored and faced head on, and we figure out the ending… Stay in the story.” <— This. Yes.

    • cjdeboer

      Ah Bethany, yes, we’re both in our own hard stories right now. But to keep on taking steps instead of hiding away is sometimes the bravest thing we can do. Much love to you. xo

  • Amy Hunt

    Claire, your story is eerily familiar to me. I live with the space between my father and me and felt the sting of abandonment from my father, even if not intended, understood or perceived as such. When I saw him this summer I, too, felt awkward. To accept what is has been my hardest thing to do yet. I appreciate knowing we have a shared understanding between us for this pain, especially since I often feel alone and not understood by friends who haven’t lived this. {hugs}

    • cjdeboer

      Hi Amy 🙂 I know there are many people in this situation – unfortunately it’s not uncommon, but of course we often don’t know or talk about it. I feel for you too and hope you will also continue to stay in the story. xo

  • Johanna

    Claire, this is so painful and beautiful. Thank you for bringing us so vividly into your story. Thank you for the encouragement to stay in the story. I’m learning that in walking away from my stories they still follow me. If I refuse to stay in the story I’m not writing the end, I’m just giving up the opportunity to shape what the ending will be.

    • cjdeboer

      Hi Johanna – it’s so true that when we walk away from our stories they follow us, either as pain or in life circumstances. And yes, it’s only when we stay in the story that we have a chance to write the ending 🙂

  • Breaks my heart …

    But I also see the strength and resilience you are cultivating. What haunting questions. I love this: Stay in the story …

    And you are. You are staying in the story.

    Thank you for pouring out your heart, friend.

    • cjdeboer

      Thank you, Lovely. xo

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  • Joy Romualdez Kawpeng

    Thank you for writing this Claire…i know this story too. Perhaps one day, I can write about it. I just found the Gift of Writing a week ago through searching Personal Manifesto. I have already begun the process. I am so grateful for your courage and your passion to help others tell their story. Thank you..