The word “forgive” is old, old enough that its predecessor forgiefan was replaced by the middle English word foryiven. What stands behind both is the essential quality of letting go of anger and resentment, of allowing a second chance.
Forgiveness is not a human act alone. Animals have been observed forgiving each other. Much like us, the ease of forgiveness for animals depends on the extent of the conflict, the depth of the wounds.
For many years, I’ve wondered why some people strive to forgive and some people feel unable to do so. In some respects, I was lucky because I was forced by the love of one thing to forgive another, my mom.
Mom didn’t deserve my forgiveness.
She stood smack in the middle of the path to something I wanted: my relationships with my little sisters and my dad.
I forgave her because my love of them was bigger than my hate of her. One day, it struck me there was no honor in pretending she was forgiven. That made me a hypocrite. Being thorough, I tried to figure out how to make a wish for forgiveness permeate me. I wanted something more than air kisses of absolution, clenched teeth and quiet bitterness. I wanted to know why she had been so awful.
As a child, I was enthralled with the word “bitterness” and would play with that word in my head. It became to me The Bitternest, a home to a family of garrulous birds who squabbled often. For some reason, laughing at their wounding, playing with imagination reduced the sting of a reality in which my bird personage was “crow” or “albatross” to Mom depending on the day.
My sisters and I all laughed and joked against the thoughtless actions and critical words Mom slung at us as she usurped our privacy and individual freedoms. Laughter was one of several forms of rebellion, a counterpoint to her rigid control. Our father bore it like a saint. I wondered how,
What kind words and thoughtful actions she did do lulled me into wishful stupor. Sadly, they were the inadvertent setup for the inevitable horrible things she would next say, that cut others to the quick.
She used to shake me as a child and scream in my face, “I wish you had never been born.” My best retort came later, a tendency towards depression and suicide, a wish to oblige her and set us both free. Thankfully, I failed at suicide again and again. Much later, I wondered who put those thoughts, those words in her head? Where were the brakes on her mouth?
When I think of the word “mom” the first response in my head is her screaming, but it softens as she runs on. She was a boiler forever overstoked and in danger of blowing up or scalding someone: necessary to survival, dangerous and requiring a watchful eye.
But the important part is that she changed, or at least she did for me. She went from worst enemy to delicate, judicious, and wise confidante.
When she grew, I was in awe of her and proud. I loved her wacky sense of humor, her wide ranging interests, her knowledge of books. Sorting through the 6,000 sq. feet of the items in her estate, it was clear to me she was at least a Class 3 hoarder. From the “gator” shoes she wore to my younger sisters’ high school games, to the three hundred plus coffee mugs she kept in case the need arose for emergency catering. She was prepared. Something bad must have happened to her that she kept every single drawing she made in her adult life and had not a single image made by her children.
At first, it made me angry. Then, one day, I found something I made in art class; a tortured looking blue-glazed clay creature with bulging eyes and a flesh-integrated back pocket from which a bulging wallet protruded. The creature sat forlornly on its own private hill as comic book hands emerged from the soil and approached it at every angle. Its eyes were raised to heaven with a look like a tortured Saint Sebastian. Through the years, two of its horns had broken off. The expression was unmistakable: it was her, a Mother’s Day gift from long ago.
Mother’s Day is coming again. Though dead now since June 2012, she still laughs at my jokes. She is still “her”–bugging everyone to carry a purse, wear slippers, keep a snack handy. Sometimes, I grab my phone to call her old number to ask for advice or Sauerbraten before I remember she’s not here anymore. I recycle what I know of her algorithms and evoke her advice. When in doubt, I rummage in her old purse with its ratty address book, cheese sandwich crackers, kleenex, and missal, and I wonder who the hell stole her snake bite kit?
In hindsight, what stands out is her fear.
She must have been so afraid. Like the alien from the movie Super 8, she was destructive and rampant and bloodthirsty and underneath it all, so injured and lonely. Careful, though–she might read your thoughts and snack on your head.
People said she was mentally ill. Who knows?
I followed the dictate, “You can’t change people, but if you change, they will be forced to change in response to you.”
I’d hated her so deeply for all the insults and damage, for her constant reminders of how inadequate I was as a female, for the fact that she left me to clean up the mess she created and then leaned on me for support. Told by her doctor, “Madam, thoroughbreds are skittish,” in response to her ongoing hypochondria and high-strung ways, she was it seemed, relieved of her inability at self control. In reality, she was made weaker, less able, more isolated from the human fold.
I knew her truest in her final years, when her stubbornness had softened to a conviction that she must brush the family cat who rewarded her zeal with a bite and a skin infection later that almost killed her. I understood where the cat was coming from. I laugh every time I think of my husband catching her–newly recovered–with the cat brush again in hand. Some people just don’t give up.
Her stubbornness became a drive to amend and take back all the horrible things she had said.
I shiver when I think of the softness of her hazel green eyes, the sincerity of her words, the reality that she became a much better person, the bird of paradise with whom I built a forgivenest.
Happy Mother’s Day mom, wherever you roam.
Here is Mom on her last birthday: https://vimeo.com/81977373