Self-evolution: Organic Forgiveness (Pt. 1)
Forgive and forget. Forgive and forget. Forgive and forget. This annoying rejoinder from childhood always seems to find me in my angriest of moments. It was designed to pacify the most explosive of arguments, and to preserve predetermined, pre-baked relationships: school, church, home. Most of all, it was totally designed to make people eat their peas and shut up!
As I survey the collective damage done by my own life and others', I find that the path towards forgiveness, for me, requires a journey into deepest caverns of my psyche. I analyze what happened 30 + years ago, I accept. Then I re-analyze, reject. I go back to craft my one-to-two sentence party line to explain it to others -- why I let this go but do not let that go, knowing how hard it is to make words stick these days. But in the end, I am only wading in the shallow waters: unless I can really put myself in the position of "other", I do not easily forgive mistakes or behaviors done by myself or others.
In March 2020, I was brought back from my work assignment in Pakistan to the United States, where I ended up spending almost four months living with my very "woke" parents, a fun and intelligent sibling, and my most special guy - Jimi, a six-year-old Shepherd mix - in a conservative part of Florida. Driving around our neighborhood and the nearby canals, republican flags for 2020 adorned many-to-most homes and boats. From Washington, DC to Islamabad, Pakistan, I have not been used to such in-your-face, unilateral propaganda, but this is a part of the world where-- meaningless though it may be-- people like to flaunt their rights to do anything as loudly and visibly as possible.
Being at home for four months, not knowing until the very end when I would go back to Pakistan to continue my work, was something I have never experienced in my adult life. The company was great; the dog-time was comforting - and I launched a couple of new projects in my copious spare time. However, as is always the case when one returns home from abroad-- or during a time of a protracted pandemic-- I had time to sit with my memories, my "demons", and all the things that did/ did not happen to my life. I managed to isolate a few events which happened in my life; why I was able to forgive, or not; and what remained in the afterglow of my thoughts.
1) 1987: When I was nine years old, my two closest-in-age cousins passed away, together. The story is quite awful-- an unmedicated parent with schizophrenia; a state medical system that did not comprehend how to fully treat her; then, a tragic event during one of her episodes that killed my two very young cousins.
I was a lucid, emotional, analytical AF nine-year old. I forgot Nothing and I mourned Everything. When Christmas night came every year, you would find me bawling because it was "oooooverrrr". Funny to remember this. BUT, being a really smart and empathetic kid also left me fully cognizant of what was going on in my family. (Plus, I eavesdropped on the reg!) I knew my cousins were in trouble; this was a lot of extra emotional weight for a nine-year old to be carrying. So naturally, on the day they died, when I heard the phone ring and then, one minute later, a shriek and a crash to the floor, I actually knew or felt in my bones that something really bad had happened to them.
Fast forward six months later. I am making a total disaster in my Grandmother's kitchen, which she freely lets me use to make "Apple Fritters" and other assorted flour-and-water-and-fruit kitchen projects. My Grandfather tries everything I "bake", tells me it's delicious, and then cleans up the entire disaster zone in the kitchen. BLESS THEIR HEARTS! I miss them so much <3 The phone rings; I deign myself master of the house, and pick up the kitchen wall phone receiver--
It is my aunt, calling from Bergen Pines Mental Hospital. She knows it is me, by my Mickey-Mouse childhood voice, the voice of the now-lone female grandchild. She asks to speak with my uncle, her soon-to-be ex-husband, who is living upstairs. I ask, "Is this Aunt Cheryl?"
She pauses, for what was a very palpable 15-20 seconds. "Yes."
I tell her that I will go get my uncle, but before I do, I say, "Aunt Cheryl, I want you to know that I love you." I hear a sob catch in her voice when she returns the sentiment to me.
The adult me has tears in my eyes when I think about this memory, but the childhood me -- knowing this could and WOULD be my last opportunity to speak with my Aunt, on Earth -- was serious and unflinching - as if on a mission. Why did I say this?
To share a completely false theory with you, for context, and to make you chuckle (god knows we need it at this juncture), people who know me well think that my forgiveness of this Aunt was a "gift from God bestowed on an innocent child". Yes, I am spiritual. NO, I was not a pie-in-the sky, princess-longing-in-the tower child. I was the kid who shaved the heads of my barbie dolls, "dyed" their remaining hair pink/blue/yellow/ whatever with a marker, who enjoyed making "puke-colored Easter Eggs" best (by mixing the remaining colors together after the pretty ones emerged), whose favorite movie was "Return to Oz" (an F-ed up, steampunk version of the Wizard of Oz) and who hated smiling for pictures because it would make people say I was pretty and that would mean they were thinking of me as a potential future wife for someone and ... I was a WARPED CHILD, Bless my subversive artist heart.
But, getting back to the perceived "miracle" of my forgiveness...I understood perfectly that my cousins had died by her hand. I missed them terribly. I knew how much pain my Aunt had caused our family-- the worst kind. But I never doubted two things: 1) my Aunt was sick in her mind, and therefore completely NOT cognizant of her own actions; and, 2) she didn't need anyone else reminding her of what she had done. I considered my Aunt's pain-- the pain of a mother losing two children-- to have been inflicted on her. Later, I would come to blame the hospitals that did not intervene, the police and social workers that did not check up on the family. But not once have I ever blamed my Aunt for taking actions leading to the death of my cousins.
Forgiveness is organic; it is not power, it is not a prize to be earned. That is, frankly, a shadow-puppet version of what forgiveness truly represents. It is not a hope or a prayer. And, without it, life does go on.
Why I was able to forgive from the get-go: I recognized then that this woman, my Aunt, was a victim-- of an underdeveloped mental health care system, and perhaps people who were not listening or watching her close enough to see her dangerous devolution into an absolute psychopath.
To know, at nine years old, that death could happen in the way it did to my cousins, is permanently life-changing. To understand that this happened to two cousins in the same age group as me was disturbing, and forever altered my life's course. I am 42 and have never been married (not even close), I live mostly abroad (and have been since 22), I am not planning to have children, and I have always been running off somewhere in some shape or form. I have fears and doubts that continue into today, which I believe sprang from losing two people so young in life. This is who I am and I believe that this event contributed to the circumstances of my life today.
But, even now, I feel nothing but empathy for this Aunt, who, uncognizantly (hope that is a word!) took the lives of my two wonderful cousins (truly, they were amazing kids and I remember their personalities well) in 1987. I feel empathy for all of us who loved this family and were helpless to save it. In short, there are things and people in my life that I do not condone or forgive, but Aunt Cheryl is not one of them.
--TO BE CONTINUED--