Forgiveness is a very powerful force

By Dr. Arne Vainio
News From Indian Country 12-08

It was beginning to snow harder. The snow was falling between the tall pines and was clumping into huge flakes that landed on the painted gray metal coffin, then melted and ran like tears into the open grave. The fake grass over the mound of dirt stood out, brilliant green against the pure white snow.

Most of Dale’s family was there; his wife, daughters, grandchildren and great- grandchildren were all at the graveside. One of his friends played the guitar and sang Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” as the coffin was lowered into the grave. As Dale’s doctor, I was asked to be near the front of the line with family. The tobacco I sprinkled was covered with dirt as more people followed me, the thudding sound of each handful on the coffin signaling finality.

Notably absent was Dale’s son. I knew Jim fairly well and had seen him as a patient multiple times. I knew he didn’t get along with his father, but he would never talk about it. I also knew this was a feud that went back for over 30 years. Dale had also been my patient and I had really become attached to him in the year that I knew him. In the course of our visits, his lost relationship with Jim was the one thing that really bothered him the most. Dale wasn’t even sure how it started, but he knew it was a comment he made about Jim’s wife at their wedding. He couldn’t really even remember what was said, but Jim told him at the wedding that Dale was no longer his father.

Jim kept his word. Dale had gone to Jim’s house to apologize after the wedding and Jim closed the door on him. Dale never got to see his grandchildren and had to hear about them from other people and only saw them in passing at random times. No birthday invitations, no Christmas cards, no school programs, no graduations. Dale told me that many times he had the phone in his hand with Jim’s phone number almost completely dialed in, then would hang it back up. There was a sadness in Dale that didn’t respond to antidepressant medicines, and I knew I was the only person Dale felt comfortable talking to about losing his son. Some visits I mostly let him talk as it was the only thing I could really do for him.

Jim came in to see me about 2 months after his dad died. He had started getting heartburn and was eating antacids by the handful. I started him on a stronger medicine and that worked for about a month. He initially denied drinking, but his liver tests and other blood tests suggested otherwise. I talked to him about it again, and he admitted he had started drinking recently. He had missed work several times and was close to losing his job. This was causing lots of stress at home and he was fighting with his wife almost every night, “I don’t even want to go home anymore.”

I asked him about his dad, but he still didn’t want to talk about it, so I dropped the subject. I continued to see him for his high blood pressure and saw him every 2-3 months. He was picked up for drinking and driving and came back in to see me as part of an exam to go to a treatment center. His wife was in the process of filing for divorce and “my kids hate me.” He had quit smoking 8 years ago, but had restarted and was smoking over a pack a day. He looked ten years older than the last time I had seen him. In denial, he insisted he did not need treatment, but was only going to keep his driver’s license and get a shorter overall sentence.

He came back in to see me halfway into his alcohol treatment program. “They made me look at myself in ways I didn’t want to.” He did lose his job, but his wife was coming in to see him in the treatment center and they thought they would be able to work things out. He was starting to talk to his kids again, but one of his sons was not talking to him yet. “That really hurt, but it made me realize that’s what I had done to my dad for over 30 years.”

Jim did open up and start talking about his dad. He remembered his dad coming to the house to apologize. “I was so mad it felt good to close the door on him.” He assumed his dad would come back to talk to him again, and “when he never did, I just got madder and madder.” After awhile, his pride wouldn’t let him make the call to his dad and he was able to justify his decision to exclude his parents from his life. “I thought about him lots. He was a great mechanic and there were times I knew he would be able to help me with a problem, but I just couldn’t call him.” As our visits went on, Jim more and more would tell stories about growing up with his father. Dale took him fishing when he was small and “I could tell he was proud of me when I caught my first fish. He had that picture in his tackle box for as long as I could remember.”

He finally did get up the courage to call his mother. She cried on the phone as soon as she heard his voice and told him, “You sound just like your father.” He went to see her and in the course of their visit she brought out Dale’s photo album. Taped on the inside cover was the black and white picture of Jim holding up his first fish.

Who benefits when someone holds a grudge? No one. Everyone has family members that they don’t get along with at times, but most of the time we can get past that. I still see patients who have grudges against a brother or sister, parent or child.  This means that everyone else in the family has to choose sides. How fair is that to them? How fair is that to you?

Forgiveness is a powerful force. The only thing stronger is the power to not forgive. Even if you don’t believe in Christmas, now would be a good time to make that call or write that letter. Jim missed his chance and can never get it back. Don’t let that happen to you. I’ll take the heat if it doesn’t work out. Tell them Dr. Vainio sent you.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is a Family Practice Physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Minnesota. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..