33. Heavenly Forgiveness

33. Heavenly Forgiveness

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

Heavenly Forgiveness

You know you really love someone, when you can’t hate them for breaking your heart…

~Author Unknown

My older brother, Paul, had a very troubled life. We moved around a lot as children, partly because my parents were always trying to get him away from what they called a “bad element.” After moving fifteen times, they reluctantly admitted that he was the bad element. When he couldn’t find trouble in a new location he created it.

There were some whoppers. Like the day he came home with soot on his hands and told my parents it was only dirt. Later they saw an article in the local paper about a mysterious fire in the back yard of an abandoned house down the street. There were constant reports of school fights and disruptive behavior in class. Paul’s black eyes actually overlapped. He always had a fresh one while the last one was yellowing.

I was shy and grew accustomed to my parents giving more attention to Paul because of his bad behavior.

My brother and I played together a lot as young children, but around the time that he became a teenager, he started using alcohol and marijuana and changed drastically. The brother I knew, who had always protected me from bullies, began to bully me severely. I didn’t understand what was happening to him.

Many people scoff at the idea that marijuana is a gateway drug, but in my brother’s case it was absolutely true. When he was sixteen, I was skateboarding with friends when one said to me, “Isn’t that your brother?” I saw Paul across the street, skipping along the sidewalk and singing, clearly high as a kite. He saw me and came over. Nothing he said made any sense. He was like a different person. I was terrified. He was my brother but not my brother.

Eventually, he started using heroin and spent a total of eight years in jail for drug-related offenses, including burglary of a pharmacy. He was shot in the ankle during that arrest. The officer was either a bad shot or merciful.

I wasn’t perfect but I avoided drugs, mainly as a result of seeing Paul’s life deteriorate. I also didn’t want to add to our parents’ pain.

One night in a supermarket parking lot I heard a familiar voice behind me and turned to see Paul shaking down an elderly man for change. As drug addicts often do, he had become a panhandler, struggling to get enough money for a fix. The only thing that saved him then was my parents’ support. They let him live with them, fearing he would die on the street if they didn’t. When he finally moved out, they paid his rent for many more years. It was all for naught, however, because he died of a heroin overdose at the age of thirty-seven. It was the grand finale of a lifetime of mayhem and misery.

I had grown increasingly resentful of him over the years. It started with the bullying as children and grew as a teenager when my parents and I visited him in prison. I couldn’t believe he was dragging us through that dark world with him. With every tear my mother shed, my resentment and anger grew. The only thing that kept our bond from breaking completely was my memory of the brother who played with me in the sun as kids, who consoled me when I cried, and with whom I shared an identical sense of humor. In fact, our ability to laugh together was the last connection we had in his most troubled years. There were moments between bullying sessions when he was a lot of fun to be with and we laughed ourselves sick. He was the only sibling I had, so I was always eager to connect with him.

When we got older, I spent countless hours talking with him, struggling to find the right words to divert him from the destructive path he was on. He always hugged and thanked me, but he never changed. During the last year of his life, I stopped talking to him completely. It hurt me to abandon him, but I was desperate and thought I would try “tough love” for a change. I had already tried everything else.

When he died, I felt guilty for two reasons—I never forgave him for the pain he caused my parents and me, and I couldn’t forgive myself for not being there for him at the end. I couldn’t stop thinking that abandoning him added to his pain and made him more careless, or that I might have been able to save him somehow if I had been accessible to him. For months after he died, I buried my grief under anger. When it finally subsided, I prayed for his soul and asked him to forgive me, hoping he could hear me somehow.

He never talked about it, but he had become a Christian in prison. I only knew this because of a journal I found in his apartment after he died in which he had written, “I can’t win this fight. I’m laying it all down at the foot of the old rugged cross,” referencing an old hymn. On another page, he had written about feeling guilty for not being a better brother to me. He ended this passage with, “Despite it all, I love Mark and I know he loves me, too.” I tore that page out and carry it in my wallet to this day, fifteen years later. There were also many rambling entries about his past and present problems.

A month or so after he died, I took the journal to his grave and burned it page by page, hoping the smoke would reach him in heaven, and praying to him to let go of all the pain and confusion those pages represented.

I have always imagined heaven as a place where our pain-filled bodies fall away like worn-out clothes, where sadness is washed away, and where we forgive others and ourselves for our mistakes in life. I can’t imagine we bring all our mortal pettiness with us or heaven would be as full of misery as earth is. As Colossians 1:13-14 says, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

One night, I had a dream that Paul and I were on a beach where we had spent many happy days as children. In life, he was heavily tattooed from his time in prison and had lost most of his teeth from drug use, but in my dream he looked pristine and healthy. He said, “Mark, stop torturing yourself. Of course I forgive you. You didn’t do anything wrong. I made the mistakes, not you. You were just trying to save me.”

I hugged him and cried. I told him I forgave him too, and begged him to let me take him to my parents because they needed him back so desperately. He said, “I can’t. I have a new home now.” I asked where. He smiled and looked up. It was a smile filled with the peace he was never able to find in mortal life. I just kept hugging him and crying, afraid if I let him go he would be gone again. I woke up heartbroken that it was only a dream, but with a heart lighter than it had been since he died. I felt like I had just seen him again.

The psychologist Sigmund Freud said one of the main purposes of dreams is wish fulfillment. Since there is no greater wish than to see our lost loved ones just one more time and make peace with them, I know there may be no supernatural reason for this dream. Nevertheless, I choose to believe that my brother came to me that night to ease my pain, and perhaps his own.

In the years since, as I have meditated about that dream, I have often thought about the many times he and I argued, and how we had always forgiven each other afterward no matter how upset we had become. Why wouldn’t he forgive me from his “new home” as I had forgiven him? As his journal entry said, despite it all, he always knew I loved him. No matter how messy life gets, in the end, love is all that matters, and all we take with us. There is no need to beg those we have lost for forgiveness. It comes naturally in heaven.

~Mark Rickerby

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