95. To Forgive and Not Forget

95. To Forgive and Not Forget

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

To Forgive and Not Forget

When you forgive, you in no way change the past — but you sure do change the future.

~Bernard Meltzer

People say that forgiveness helps the one doing the pardoning more than the one being pardoned. They say that holding a grudge damages the holder, not the person who did the hurting.

I never believed them.

After years of drinking, my newly sober dad decided he wanted to be an alcohol and drug counselor. So this wonderful man, who had skipped more high school classes than he had attended (usually to go fishing), went to college.

I was a tutor and Daddy often called upon me for help. We had an arrangement: for every tutoring session I provided him, he would answer a question about my childhood. Any question. Period.

One day I asked, “When was the first time you knew she hated me?”

I didn’t need to say who I was talking about. All my life, my mother had expressed herself quite articulately about why she hated me, about how much she hated me, about how she wished I’d never been born. She called me “fatty” long before I ever had an ounce of extra weight on my body and she ridiculed me in public every chance she got. The family — my parents, my siblings and I — would go shopping. If I said anything within her hearing that rubbed her the wrong way (and nearly everything I said rubbed her the wrong way), my mother would stop in her tracks and say, in front of family and strangers alike, “How did anything so stupid come from my body?”

My dad left home when I was fourteen and things got worse. Once, my mother and I were at the pharmacy. As we stood at the register ringing up our purchases, my mother turned to the cashier and said, “I wish it was legal to abort seventeen-year-olds.”

So, my dad knew very well who I was talking about when I asked, “When was the first time you knew she hated me?”

I could tell that my dad didn’t want to divulge that information, but this was our deal. He’d gotten his tutoring session; now I was getting my answer.

What Daddy told me chilled me to the bone. I was born at a local Catholic hospital, and the day I was born the nuns gave me to my mother to be fed. My dad stepped out to get a cup of coffee. He came back to bedlam.

“There were screams coming from your mother’s room,” Daddy explained. “When I ran in, your mother was shaking you, screaming, ‘I hate you! I hate you!’ ”

Daddy cleared his throat, hoping, I think, I would stop him from going on with the story. “The nuns had to take you away from her. Three days later, they gave you back.”

I thought the story was over, but my dad went on.

“The next day I had to go to work,” Daddy said. “When I came home, your mother was slamming your crib against the wall over and over, saying, ‘I hate you!’ as if she couldn’t speak different words if she tried.” Daddy looked at me, pleading with his eyes, but I didn’t know what to say. “Every weeknight was the same. I came home to the same nightmare. On the weekends I was there with you and your mom never even looked at you, but weekdays I always came home to that same horrible scene.” Daddy breathed hard. “It was weeks before I told anyone. After that, your granny came every day, from morning till night. We . . . tried to protect you.”

The story stunned me. That my mother hated me was no secret. The extent of her hatred towards my infant self was a huge surprise though. After several minutes of silence, Daddy said, “I’d kill for a pork barbecue sandwich. Are you hungry?”

“Famished,” I said.

And that, as they say, was that.

My mother continued to “slam” me as I grew, mostly with words and often with anything she could reach that would inflict pain. Realizing as a teenager that my mother was a drug addict did not assuage my resentment toward her. After all, my siblings were not being pummeled with vitriol and rage. As soon as I was old enough, I walked away from my mother. I stopped answering my telephone. I avoided family gatherings.

The culmination of those years of torture was that I didn’t see or speak to my mother for a number of years. It was the healthiest thing I could do for myself.

One night, my brother phoned. Our mother had overdosed on opiates. It was her fourth overdose and by far the most damaging. My mother suffered seventeen seizures her first day in the ICU. Her body survived, but her mind was gone. It was like instant Alzheimer’s. The level of her deterioration was alarming and my siblings transferred our mother to a nursing home because she could no longer care for herself.

Three nights later, my phone rang very late. Someone-has-been-killed-in-a-car-crash late. I answered automatically. It was my mother. She was sobbing. “Please come and get me!” she cried. “I need to go home!”

That call unhinged me. My mother had locked me up on false charges more than once when I was a teenager. I spent my sixteenth birthday in jail because she lied to the courts and said I had knocked her out. I had to make up my entire sophomore year of high school on my own time because my mother locked me up for the last two months of the school year. I knew the desperation she felt.

I talked to her. I had pity on her, even though I really tried not to. Somehow I calmed her enough that she could go to sleep.

I didn’t sleep at all. I was feeling empathy for a woman who had tortured me, a woman who wished I’d never been born, and it infuriated me. I stood at the bathroom mirror and looked at myself, something I never did because my mother had convinced me early on that I was ugly.

I stood there and I prayed. At first, I had no words, just raw emotion. Memories of taunts and starvation and beatings flooded my brain and left again. Finally I said, “Okay, God. I forgive her.”

It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but I let the past exit my brain so I could be for my mother what I reveled in being for others every day of my life. After that prayer, I talked to my mother every evening for the rest of her life. Her brain damage from the overdose turned her into a funny person who chatted almost exclusively about Elvis Presley and bad nursing home food. Occasionally she’d return to her old self, and I’d politely get off the phone without fighting with her.

My mother died unexpectedly in July 2013. I didn’t cry, but sometimes I wake up missing the mother I never had, and I weep. Mostly, though, I’m thankful for finding the strength to forgive. It matters. It has made a difference.

~Marla H. Thurman

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