The weekend Shuntai Walker turned 10, she took her birthday money to her father's house in hopes of a shopping trip. Instead, her father, Charles Hill, "borrowed" the money and sent Shuntai home to her mom's house. "I was really upset," she remembers.
Normally her visits with Charles involved picnics, fishing trips, and basketball games, but after that birthday weekend, Shuntai overheard that Charles was addicted to drugs, and her mother forbade her to spend time with him.
Growing up fatherless hurt. "I felt abandoned by him," says Shuntai. The feeling haunted other parts of her life too: "As an adult, I could never really trust anyone."
"As an adult, I could never really trust anyone."
Their relationship continued tenuously, marked by Charles's obliviousness and Shuntai's resentment. Her dad showed up to Shuntai's first wedding in 1995, but it felt awkward to have him there. He'd randomly send a text for Mother's Day, but she didn't always respond. "I saw him over the years," Shuntai says, "but he moved around a lot, and because of his addiction, he was no longer the father I remembered."
Over time, Charles's health problems prompted him to do some soul-searching, and he tried to repair his most damaged relationships. In 2012, he began calling and texting Shuntai and sending her cards. Under other circumstances, Shuntai might have rejected the attention, but her mother had just been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and if their grandmother passed away, she wanted her sons to have a connection with their grandfather.
"I started to understand him as a man whose heart was broken."
At the time Shuntai was also studying to be a therapist. One class assignment had her create a map of her family's history of illness, divorce, and addiction. To fill in the gaps on her father's side, she reached out to Charles and learned more about how he'd been abandoned by his mother when he was a child. "I started to understand him as a man whose heart was broken," says Shuntai.
The Christmas after Shuntai's mother died, in 2016, promised to be a hard one. "Why don't you invite your father for Christmas?" her boyfriend prompted. Hmm, she thought. Why not? She sent Charles a bus ticket.
"There was comfort in knowing I still had a connection in this world with a parent."
As a therapist, Shuntai knew forgiveness happened incrementally. For her and Charles, spending that holiday together-examining old pictures and playing cards with her now-grown sons-created a connection in which fond new memories edged out bitterness. "It was a magic moment," Charles says. "I hadn't been around family for Christmas like that in a long time." For Shuntai, "there was comfort in knowing I still had a connection in this world with a parent."
Throughout their reconciliation, Charles continued to struggle with addiction (he has been clean since May). Still, Shuntai finally feels as if she's forgiven her father. "There's nothing holding me back," she says. And she's already planning their next holiday together.
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