36. I Did Not Understand

36. I Did Not Understand

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

I Did Not Understand

The knowledge of the past stays with us. To let go is to release the images and emotions, the grudges and fears, the clingings and disappointments of the past that bind our spirit.

~Jack Kornfield

Dear Rona,

I wish I knew your address in heaven, so I could send this letter of apology directly to you.

I apologize. I apologize for the years I did not understand. I apologize for the years I did not hug you and say, “How can I help you?” or “I’m sorry for what has happened to you,” or “I love you.”

I did not understand. Please forgive me.

You see, growing up when we did, there was a stigma about mental illness. It wasn’t something that happened in a happy functional family. It was the era of institutions, not rehabilitation. Mom and Dad were embarrassed, frightened, and unenlightened. None of us understood what was happening or suspected anything serious. We thought it was a phase, an association with incompatible friends, or the need for a job suitable to your talents. How could we know? Even when we dared to seek counseling, the experts focused on how the family dealt with anger. Why didn’t they suspect schizophrenia? It would have saved us from a great deal of agony.

I did not understand. Please forgive me.

I was furious with you. Why did I have to work two jobs when you didn’t maintain one job for more than a few weeks? I was told, “There are problems.” What problems? There was no diagnosis.

Forgive me if I was impatient when you stole and misused my credit card, or ate dinners I purchased for myself. Forgive me if I screamed, “Get your own life!” after you pleaded with me to take you wherever I went. I didn’t know you feared being alone with your voices.

I did not understand. Please forgive me.

When you were finally diagnosed, it explained your behavior but did not make it easier. I lived five hours from you. It was the first year of my marriage, and I was pregnant and a full-time teacher. Mom and Dad protected me. They kept me uninformed. They reassured me they had everything under control and you were being treated by an expert in the field of mental illnesses. When I saw you after your first shock treatment, your robotic movements terrified me. Please forgive me for not hugging you. I thought you might push me to the floor as you had your elderly neighbor.

How could I imagine what it was like to be inside your head and hear voices? How could I understand that it was beyond your control when you threatened people with knives? How could I forgive you when Dad died at age sixty-six from a massive coronary? I blamed you for being a burden on him and Mom. How could I understand that you did not take your medication because you disliked the side effects? How could I understand that I should listen rather than reason with you when you called to tell me you were pregnant by a movie celebrity? What was I to make of your visions of hair clips dancing on the bureau, the Lone Ranger chasing you, or the refusal to eat my cooking when I knew you loved food? It was hard to comprehend your world of shattered reality and paranoia.

I did not understand. Please forgive me.

Forgive me if my conversations were short and focused on the weather when I visited you. I was afraid I might say something that would trigger a flare up, and I didn’t want to be a victim of your venom. I walked on eggs. I feared that if I stepped too heavily, the shell might crack and the yolk break.

A few years ago, Mom made a collage that hangs on her bedroom wall. I stare at it when I visit her. I study each photo. I search for clues. Which photo is you? Is it the three-year-old clutching a toy doggie while a photographer wipes away your tears? Is it the five-year-old with blond pigtails poised on the seesaw opposite me? We are frozen in a moment of equilibrium before we teeter on the fulcrum. Is it the teenager with a well-proportioned figure, playful smile and twinkle in her eyes, posed in front of the lifeguard stand? Is it the performer who, à la Ethel Merman, belted out songs that reached the rear row of an auditorium and brought audiences to their feet with applause? Is it the last photo of you as a young professional, with white cotton gloves, bouffant hairdo, and a pastel blue linen suit, preened and ready for Daddy to drive you to your first job at an insurance company?

There are no signs in these photos of demons or of a body and mind ravaged by a disease. The photo of you as a 180-pound woman with a forced smile, stringy grayish blond hair, and a face distorted from medication is hidden in a desk drawer. I often look at that photo, because it reminds me of the cruelty of mental illness. Forgive me for storing that image in my internal camera. Forgive me for not hugging that body. I forget that you were once well groomed and beautiful.

I did not understand. Please forgive me.

I asked you to forgive me when you were dying, but you were in a coma, so I don’t know if you heard me. Maybe you did hear me but were unable to forgive me because I allowed Mom to halt an inquiry into the cause of your cardiac arrest. I wanted to pursue it. There was a rumor that the nursing home was negligent. Maybe you did hear me, but could not forgive me because I agreed with Mom to remove the life support equipment. Did you think we were doing it for selfish motives so we wouldn’t have to tend to you any longer? We wouldn’t have to deal with your phone calls on nights with full moons, or seek a new residence for you after each release from a hospital? The doctors declared you brain dead. No recovery. No reversal. Besides, you looked so peaceful in the bed. No twitches. No outward indication of inner turmoil or voices. Peaceful with hazel eyes staring straight ahead. I assumed you’d be happier. But who was I to decide whether you would be happier dead or alive? Maybe you had the right to live and be happy, even if you were a menace to people and your day focused on food and sleep. Who was I to define happiness for someone who is a schizophrenic?

I did not understand. Please forgive me.

I hope you are well in heaven. I hope you are singing in harmony with the angels. I hope they are keeping the demons away from you and that you rest peacefully.

Love,

Lois

~Lois Kipnis

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