Forgive and be forgiven.
Two months ago, a stranger I’ll call John read a news story about a book I wrote and took the time to go to my website and email me via my contact form. The content of his email was not new to me. The book—a memoir of an open marriage that breached moral grey areas, to say the least—tends to arouse strong reactions. Readers either love it (if they’ve gone through similar feelings or experiences), or hate it (if they’d never allow themselves similar feelings or experiences). A handful have written to remind me that I will likely die alone, stranded in a nursing home without a spouse or children, all because of my decision to remake my life in middle age.
I responded, as I usually do, with a one-liner reminding John that we all ultimately die alone—especially women, who tend to live longer than their husbands. Even the most well-behaved women. I figured that would be the end of that.
To my surprise, John pushed back, making myriad assumptions about my motivations, my former marriage, and my childhood (he actually hadn’t read the book, only the article about the book). Normally, I’d let these mistaken impressions go and simply block his email, but something made me respond more vulnerably than usual. In a brief paragraph, I told John about my parents’ abusive marriage, my unrequited longing for children, my moral regrets, and my lifelong spiritual search. I told him it felt cruel to hear a stranger say I’d die unhappily in a nursing home.
John’s next email was titled “My Apologies.” He wrote: “Forgive me for my preconceptions. I am very grateful for the nice way you replied with a Kleenex instead of a slap. You have a good heart. I read your reply and tears came to my eyes.”
A Kleenex instead of a slap. A clumsy phrase, but I liked it. I wrote that I fully accepted John’s apology and also was sorry for any harshness on my part.
You didn’t really owe that guy an apology, my ego whispered.
I know, but it doesn’t hurt, I told it.
If you wonder where I got the balls to write a sex memoir and respond to strangers’ hate mail with one-liners, the answer can be summed up in one word—Mom. My 76-year-old mother is the loudest, feistiest woman I’ve ever met, as well as one of the most affectionate and empathetic. She and I share a tendency to show extreme kindness and offer untold help to others, until someone crosses us. Then watch out.
I’ve been spending days at a time with her lately, and around Day 3, a predictable clash of wills occurs. Five times she’ll tell me how to load the dishwasher, and on the sixth, I’ll snap back. Five times I’ll forget to close her bedroom door so my terrier doesn’t run in and pee on his favorite patch of carpet, and on the sixth, she’ll get testy. The four-letter words fly and the always-high volume blasts up a few notches higher. Ten minutes later, we laugh it off. It’s what we do, and in all honesty, it’s refreshing to have someone I can totally let go with. Not one of my lifelong female friends and I can get to that level of catharsis. She expelled me from her bloody womb like any mammal would, bleating and covered in mucus. We can dispense with the niceties.
But last month, I really lost it. While working at her house on a tight deadline one afternoon, the electricity suddenly shut off. She began calling neighbors to see if it was an outage. It was in the low 20s outside and snowing. My mom’s arthritis hinders her mobility, and watching her once-agile frame begin to hunch and limp is physically painful to me. As I went into the basement to check the breaker, I imagined the electricity shutting off at 3 a.m. and her having to navigate the large house’s many stairs in pitch darkness. By the time I returned from the basement, she was on the phone with the utility company, and a young customer service rep informed her over speakerphone that the power had been cut for lack of payment.
Lack of payment? By the mom who was always telling me how to drive, how to stack dishes, how to manage medical issues? Was she broke? Was she becoming forgetful? No. She had done an online payment a few months prior and mistakenly assumed she’d set up automatic withdrawals. How long would it take to turn the power back on if she settled the account right now? Oh, it could take up to 24 hours, said the rep.
Did I mention it was snowing outside? And I was on deadline and needed wifi?
I grabbed the phone and told the rep I needed the power turned back on immediately. She, of course, responded with the usual faux-patient, this-is-not-my-problem script. She was obligated to tell me that it could take 24 hours, she repeated. “Fine,” I said, “here’s the payment information … ”
“Tell her she already has my checking account number,” my mom said.
“Let me handle it, Ma,” I said.
“But tell her…”
“Shut up,” I commanded, my hand making the universal signal for STOP. I was trying to listen to the rep’s instruction on throwing the breaker if necessary and making sure she had entered the payment.
“Don’t you tell me to shut up!”
“SHUT. UP!” I screamed. “I am trying to turn your power back on!”
“Don’t you dare talk to me like …”
“I SAID SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP FOR ONCE!”
The lights suddenly flicked back on. I hung up the phone. My mom had sat down in the kitchen chair and was looking at me agape, her lower jaw shaking. When she spoke, it was almost a whisper.
“Why the hell are you talking to me that way?” she asked, eyes wide.
“Becuase you never shut up!” I said. “I’m trying to help you here and you can’t just back off and let me do it! What happens when the power goes off and you’re here alone in the dark with no heat, huh? What then?”
“You’re not in charge here!” she yelled, coming to life again. “This is my house!”
“Yeah, you’re a real queen of the castle!” I screamed. “High on your throne with no electricity!” I put on my coat, picked up my laptop and purse, and left, slamming the door hard.
I drove around town for a couple of hours. The first hour or so, I mentally counted all the ways I was right and she was wrong. She literally talked at me all day long, directing and subtly criticizing my driving, my cleaning, how I managed my time and conducted my relationships. Ninety percent of the time I let it go, listening patiently—saint-like, even! How much can one person take? my ego asked. Anyone would have blown up like that!
But sometime in the second hour, this story began to lose its grip and a more brutal reality took shape, mostly in my chest, which grew heavy with remorse. The way her lower lip shook. The sound of me screaming myself hoarse. I felt shaky, weak. I couldn’t wait to get home.
Her bedroom door was closed. I knocked lightly and inched it open. She was lying on her bed talking to a friend on the phone, and I could tell she’d been crying.
“She’s home now,” she told the friend. “I’ll call you later, okay?”
I sat on the bed. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m really, really sorry. Please forgive me.”
“Of course I forgive you,” she said. “But what came over you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I got scared of you getting old and frail and not having things under control. I kept picturing you here in the dark trying to call someone or climb the steps. It doesn’t matter. I was wrong. I’m so sorry, Mom.”
We hugged. All tension melted, and within a few minutes, we were laughing at ourselves. But my behavior haunted me for weeks. I’d intermittently text her more apologies, until she finally told me to cut it out:
“It’s over and done with,” she texted. “You said you’re sorry, now let it go.”
A few weeks later, my boyfriend and I were driving through the mountains of Pennsylvania looking at lake houses. The snow had melted and it had recently rained hard. Huge puddles shone along the roads and the carpet of dead fallen leaves was soaked to the point of appearing to float.
At one house, what was advertised as a quaint stream gushed through the backyard with the force of a small river. As I rounded the corner, my dog pulled his leash and I lost my footing in the slick mud, going down hard onto my left hip but breaking most of the fall with my left hand, which hit on a low garden ledge of jagged shale.
I am not a good faller, not one of those stoics who immediately jumps up and brushes themselves off. Since I was a child, a hard fall has had the power to make me pass out. I simply knelt in the cold mud, hunched over my hand, which was oozing blood from a few small gashes where I’d grabbed the rock, the palm already looking inflamed and red. I took deep breaths, wanting to get in front of the pain so I wouldn’t faint.
My boyfriend ran up from the yard when he heard me cry out. “What happened?!” he said.
“My hand!” I moaned. “I really hurt it. Owwww. Fuck!”
“Should we get you to a doctor?”
“No!” I yelled. “Do NOT pressure me to go to a doctor! I’ll let you know if I want one!” This little diatribe stemmed from a time a few years back when I hurt my ankle and he urged me to the ER, though I resisted. It turned out that visit was a good idea; an MRI revealed an old injury and an ankle brace helped immediately.
“Jesus,” he said, “all right. I’m just trying to help.”
“You’re not helping! Let me sit here and think!”
“Okay, okay,” he said, taking the dog leash from me and looking perplexed.
In the car, I reclined the seat back a few inches and closed my eyes, my whole body shaking. I hated falling. I hated becoming faint. I hated doctors, especially in emergencies, but it was clear I’d need an X-ray on this hand.
The silence between my boyfriend and me was deafening. I didn’t consider the possibility that he was silent because he wasn’t sure what to say; instead, I took it personally. Was he really going to act like a spurned child because I’d yelled? Doesn’t a person who’s just fallen get some kind of relationship pass, for God’s sake? I was the one in pain here!
My pants from the knees down were soaked and muddy and my hand was swelling. Somewhere, from the depths of my adrenalized system, a calm voice arose to stem the physical and mental suffering that had accelerated on its own powerful spiral, as it so often does.
“I’m sorry for yelling,” I said to my boyfriend.
Wait, what? my ego yelled from deep inside the lizard brain. We’re the ones hurting! Do not apologize!
“I can’t think for a few minutes after I fall or get hurt,” I explained. “I can’t answer questions or decide whether to go to a doctor. I have to recover a little first.”
“But what if it’s really serious?” he asked.
“If I’m bleeding badly or unconscious, get me to a doctor. Otherwise, give me two minutes to think. Okay?”
“Okay,” he said.
I can’t believe this crap, said my ego.
Calm down, I said, I only apologized for yelling, not for falling. What’s wrong with that?
The answer was immediate: What was wrong was admitting I did any wrong, especially in the midst of my own pain.
Later, after I’d stopped shaking and my hand had been X-rayed and splinted (a sprain, not a break), I considered how entwined my own pain was with the pain I caused others.
Like most of us, and despite what I’ve written here, I considered myself a fairly “good” person. I often gave a helping hand to friends and family. I was free with favors, lending time and money as needed. I would stay on the phone with someone in turmoil. I was a curious listener who asked open-ended questions.
All of this was easy to do when I was having a good or even average day, when I had slept okay, my mood was steady, and events were proceeding as planned. When I was stressed, afraid, or hurt, however, things got tricky. As my own pain mounted, I became more and more apt to cause pain—and then to use my distress as a blinder that canceled out the feelings of others, at least temporarily.
It has taken me many years to see this process for what it is. My ego wants to stay solely focused on defending itself: from pain, and from knowledge of causing pain. It’s a fragile thing, this ego, a reactive child trying to protect itself any way it can. It’s not bad, just unruly. It needs calming down, and then, it needs forgiveness.
I must forgive others who hurt me while in the depths of their own defenses.
I must ask their forgiveness when I do the same.
And then, I have to forgive myself. Without that final step, the ego isn’t calmed, just shamed.
The same day John wrote me an apology, I had earlier received a morning meditation in my inbox from Richard Rohr, my favorite spiritual teacher. The gist of it was: “All human relationships are nothing but practice in forgiving and asking forgiveness.”
That’s my goal in 2019. Wish me luck.