When I assign an essay, I empathetically imagine what it would be like to endure the assignment myself. Sleepless nights. Fretting over the syntax and grammatical structure of each sentence. What’s the right word here? High or low diction? How would the reader react to such choices?
Yeah. Right! That’s the optimal student, and one destined for the pangs of authorship.
Recently, I assigned a narrative essay; that is an essay in which there is a typical essay format: you know, an introductory paragraph, thesis statement, supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion that wraps the whole thing up nicely. Here’s mine, because, you know, I’m so damn empathetic.
I blame you for nothing, but forgive you for everything. I heard these words spoken by the singer, Mary J Blige. She was talking about her mother, whom she had had a difficult relationship with her entire life. That word echoed through my head for the better part of a month: forgiveness. What a humbling and mature phenomenon forgiveness is. Like Mary J, I too had had a difficult relationship with my mother. Like her, I too learned to not blame, but just forgive. My lesson, however, was not easily learned. Nor will it be easily forgotten.
In April 2013, every phone alert I received caused a slight panic in me. Any text message, any weather alert even caused me to sit up in attention for the slightest amount of time. Each time my mother’s number populated the screen of my cell phone, my heart paused and my blood pressure spiked. Since my mother had phoned me one night the previous year and told me, “They found a spot,” any news about Mom was dire. She was destined for death; this was inevitable. Small Cell Carcinoma is what they labeled it. Lung cancer.
This was what April, 2013 was like.
Then on the 23rd I received a text from my sister. I was teaching class and excused myself to read it because the need for privacy was felt, preternaturally. I was correct. “Call me,” was all it said. I knew what that meant. “You should probably come say goodbye now,” was what my sister told me on the phone in the only way she knew how to: quickly, curtly, so she herself didn’t break down. Her tears were somehow handled, but briefly. She couldn’t even manage the word “mom” because of her fragility in the situation.
I approached my boss immediately upon hearing this news. My boss told me to leave at lunch. “Come back in a month. Your job will be here for you, but right now you need to focus on what’s important.” I had just been fired temporarily, mercifully.
When I arrived at my sister’s house that day after making the 75-mile drive to Central California from the Bay Area, Mom was agitated and somewhat incoherent. I got to see her before the ambulance that my sister had called arrived. I’d never witnessed such fear in my mom. Not really. When I came home an hour late as a kid once, she looked similar to this, but not really. This was an even deeper feeling, if such a thing can be outwardly observed. This was true fear. Her eyes gave everything away. They were dilated and wet, like a trapped animal’s. I held her hand while she lay on the gurney and gripped it until the ambulance door closed. I trailed the ambulance to the hospital in my car, silent and fearful, reminiscent.
At sixteen, I had tried to have a conversation with her about her smoking and drinking and all her unhealthy habits that would ultimately lead to her leaving my sister’s house in the back of an ambulance. I wanted to talk about why she did the things she did, knowing that they would kill her. She didn’t want to talk. “Not now, okay?” or “Chris, can we do this later,” was how she got out of discussing with her youngest that one thing he wanted to discuss more than any other. I tried again, often with the same degree of success; none. Mom refused to tell me anything about her drinking, smoking, sadness, depression, and ultimately her descent into the black hole of alcoholism.
I tried the angry approach with her. I tried the sensitive approach. I tried the logical approach. I tried every approach. She didn’t want to talk about her drinking. She didn’t want to talk about the cause of her divorcing my father. The anger. The shame it put on our household while we all lived together as a family. The weirdness I felt as a child for only receiving affection when Mommy’s breath smelled like that. The fact that Dad just couldn’t tolerate her drinking. She went to AA. She came home and drank. None of it. She wanted to talk about none of it.
Or maybe she couldn’t.
The next day in the hospital, before the doctor came in to tell her her options for her ultimate fight against the cancer, I tried again. I needed her to have that conversation with me. It had been over 20 years since I’d first tried to figure her out. The room that afternoon was conspicuously quiet with its white noise piercing the otherwise silent painfulness. No beeps and suction noises like in most hospital rooms were then perceivable. A sound of someone in need–a elderly woman, I think–punctuated the noiselessness. “Mom,” I began in a stammer, “there’s something I want to talk to you about.”
“What is it?” she asked. Her words were a struggle.
“It’s been a long time coming, Mom, and it’s probably not going to be an easy conversation.”
“Oh … can we talk later? I don’t … I don’t want to talk about unpleasant things now.” She paused and eyed the room. “It’s a nice room. Don’t you think?” I didn’t. It wasn’t a nice room. It was where death existed and it was anything but nice. I didn’t say this to her, though. It wasn’t right. But the pain lie in knowing there wasn’t going to be a “later” in which to discuss all this. This was my final moment to understand Mom.
When Mom met with her oncologist and decided that fighting the cancer was futile, they transferred her to hospice care, a sojourn until the inevitable. She was one of the younger women in the nursing facility, though by her fourth day there, she was uncommunicative, and clearly among the worst off. She mumbled without exception. Her eyes remained sealed shut. She sat up in her bed only at times. Eventually, she humped over herself, with the harsh Central California light sneaking in between the curtains, shimmering on the smooth skin of her perfectly bald scalp. Everything was colorless.
By now she was only a body, a form. Mom was gone. Two more days of this–this lifeless existence–remained.
My sister, who was local, and my brother, who had arrived at the hospital earlier than I did were present when Mom inhaled her last breath one peaceful Spring morning in early May, just days before Mothers’ Day. My arrival that morning sparked an emotional outpour, the pain, the feeling of suffocation from her kids. We hugged and embraced and just felt the heaviness of the air, of life itself, weigh us down as we became adult children without a mother.
I took a moment alone to be in the room with her body and tell it that I understood–did I?–that she couldn’t speak of her problems. That not speaking of them was a way for her to protect herself and me and my sister and my brother and even my father from all the emotional pain of her unhappy past.
It took me months, years–perhaps it’s still a bit nebulous–to fully come to grips with the realization that forgiveness is not about being okay with what the other person did or did not do. Forgiveness is understanding that what they did or did not do isn’t necessary for us to love each other. It’s not part of the equation at all. My mother loved me immensely and I her. It isn’t necessary to be versed in one’s history to love each other this fully. Of course I wished I had understood this years ago. But the most important lessons aren’t realized so easily; they are the results of reflecting on the meaning of pain. This is what makes such lessons worthwhile. And that is where I am today: forgiveness without blame.