82. Notice of Release

82. Notice of Release

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

Notice of Release

The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.

~Marianne Williamson

The impetus to learn about my mother’s killer came from an outsider, a virtual stranger. It came twenty years after the murder, quietly camouflaged like the army of other unexpected emotional blitzes I had experienced since her death. They would catch me by surprise, following seemingly inconsequential events such as a simple lunch with a friend and her mother. Like falling into a foxhole, I’d wait for the attack to finish, and then climb out, a fatigued survivor.

My husband Michael and I were attending an informal meeting at a church we were thinking of joining as a place to spiritually anchor our family. We sat in the back of the room. Within a few minutes, a man named Gary stood up to address our group of about fifteen. The head of a prison ministry, he spoke to us about his work at a local men’s prison and the positive impact forgiveness had on the lives of the inmates.

“It’s amazing to see how some of these men commit themselves to doing God’s work after the terrible things they’ve done. They turn their lives around,” he said. I felt myself twinge, feeling viscerally annoyed.

While I basically believed that forgiveness was a good thing for mankind, it wasn’t something I thought much about. I had never considered forgiving the man who killed my mother. That brand of forgiveness was for extremists who went on Oprah. I had no interest in having a positive impact on a cold-blooded murderer. In fact, I was silently bitter that my mother’s killer had only received a life sentence.

This drug-crazed gunman had entered a convenience store where my mother worked evenings. He held her at gunpoint while she emptied the register. He fired a single shot that hit her squarely in the chest, killing her instantly. Two days later he was apprehended and sentenced to life in prison at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. I was a freshman, away at college, brought home for the funeral, half out of my mind and in shock.

Gary continued, but my mind drifted. I wondered if my mother’s killer ever stopped to think about her or what he would say to me if he ever had the opportunity. How could I ever forgive the man who had so thoughtlessly and irrevocably changed the course of my life? Gary was describing the unthinkable. But surprisingly, Gary had tapped into a deep vein and I was afraid of what might happen next, the thought of forgiving the murderer startling and alarming me. The more afraid I felt, the more I cried. It was another unexpected blitz. The experience rattled me, leaving me unsure of what had happened.

Gary’s talk changed the dial on my radio. He turned it to a new frequency. I couldn’t change it back. Articles in newspapers, magazines, shows on television, and conversations with people all kept circling back to the topic of forgiveness. Unable to block it out, sickened by the thought of it, I was a little curious too. Having been spared the horror of the trial, I knew nothing of him, not even his name. Who was he?

I spoke to relatives, made phone calls, read old news clippings, and researched the case like it was a job. I placed my notes into an unnamed manila file folder on the side of my desk. Over the course of a restless year, I periodically added new pieces of information, names and phone numbers, slowly developing a mental profile of my mother’s killer, Nathan Wolfe.

At some unknown point, Nathan began to inhabit my dreams. Restlessly, I turned the dilemma over a thousand times in my mind. How could I forgive him? And why? One afternoon, while writing an article in my study, I came across my file. I was casually leafing through the pages when a piece of paper fell out. It was the telephone number of the chaplain’s office at Angola State Penitentiary. I stared at it for a second and then dialed the number, with no thought of what I’d say. A man with a soft voice and Cajun accent answered. “Chaplain’s office, Father Demereaux speaking.”

I hesitated. “Hello. My name is Marta.”

I felt ashamed of lying to a priest, substituting my middle name out of fear. Only a partial lie, I thought. “I’m calling to inquire about one of your inmates who killed my mother twenty years ago. I wonder if you could help me.”

Now he hesitated.

“What is it you want to accomplish?”

“Well,” I sank deeper into my chair, “I’m trying hard to find a way to forgive him, but I’m afraid of being identified in case he’s ever pardoned. I also want to find out whether he feels any remorse.”

“Does it make a difference if he feels remorse?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. What did remorse have to do with it? I had no way of knowing, but felt, somehow, that it shouldn’t.

“This is a very brave thing you are attempting. You are unburdening yourself and walking in the path of our Savior.” Although I tried, I couldn’t deny my Catholic upbringing as a hidden force in all of this.

“Let’s talk about how I can help you.” His soothing voice calmed me. “Would you like me to deliver a letter from you to him?” I felt my stomach tighten at the thought of something so tangible between us, as if her killer could touch me through a piece of paper. Father Demereaux interpreted my silence. “Or perhaps you can simply tell me what to say and I’ll personally deliver the message.” My stomach relaxed slightly.

“That would be better,” I agreed. “How about if you say, ‘The daughter of the woman you killed in 1980 wishes to forgive you. Do you have anything you want to say in return?’ ” It sounded so simple and to the point. He repeated it back to me. “That’s it,” I said.

“Let’s do this,” said Father Demereaux. “Can you call me next Friday night around 8:00?”

“Yes, that’s fine. Thank you.” He gave me his home telephone number. I gave him Nathan’s name. After hanging up, I realized I’d perspired through my shirt. Breathing quickly, I thought, what have I done? What if he’s released and comes after my family and me? What if I’m not really ready to forgive? What if, what if, what if? I wept, choking on my own anxiety, feeling desperately unsure of myself.

Twenty years had been a long time. But the following week seemed even longer. I kept myself busy, trying not to think; but at night, my head on the pillow, that’s all I could do. I thought of every possible scenario, mostly worst case. The panic rose up, throbbing in my chest and head, leaving me uncertain if I could navigate these violent waters.

Friday was orchestrated around the phone call that evening. Michael came home early to work on a small used boat we purchased to explore the Loxahatchee, the river on which we live. My two daughters, full of excitement, were helping him out on the dock. After an early dinner, he lured them back out to work on the boat, offering me the space and time I needed. I returned to my study, switched on the light, closed the door, sat at my desk and took a deep breath before dialing. Father Demereaux answered.

“Ah yes, Marta, my dear. You’re calling about Nathan.” Time and space disappeared. “After we spoke last Friday, I went to him on Saturday morning, never having seen him before, as he doesn’t attend the service I lead every Wednesday evening. I introduced myself and delivered your message. I asked if he had anything to say in return. Perhaps you can imagine that after twenty years he was taken aback. After a few moments, he said he needed time to think about it. I told him I’d be back in touch with him in a few days.”

Father Demereaux continued. “The following Wednesday, during my usual service, I saw him sitting in the back of the room. After I finished, I went to where he was sitting. Before I say anything more, my dear, I need to tell you something important.” Father Demereaux, almost whispering, said, “Nathan is dying of cancer. He doesn’t look well at all. I’m struck by your timing, my dear. That over a twenty-year period, you call now. A year ago, he was not sick and might not have received your message so openly. Six months from now he’ll likely be dead. It only confirms my faith in the workings of a Holy Spirit.”

Of all the scenarios I’d imagined, it never crossed my mind that I’d be forgiving a dying man. In that moment, I realized that things were unfolding just as they were intended. Trembling, the tears streaming down my cheeks, I found myself smiling, even laughing. How could I be laughing at the news of a dying man? Was I that vengeful? But it was something entirely different. It was the realization that for the first time since 1980, I felt at peace, that I had nothing to fear.

He continued, “Nathan wishes me to convey how grateful he is for your forgiveness. He asked me to tell you how deeply sorry he is for what he did, that he could never make excuses for it, but that it was a bad time in his life, that he was out of his mind on drugs. He conveys his deepest regrets to you and your family.”

And so I sat there, not knowing what to say. My clothes were soaked from perspiration and tears. Feeling immeasurable gratitude, I thanked Father Demereaux and hung up. I sat at my desk, allowing the tears of relief, sadness, gratitude and closure. I felt my mother’s presence. This was what she would have wanted.

The next day I sent Father Demereaux flowers and a note that read:

Words cannot express my gratitude.

Sincerely,

Stephanie Marta Cassatly

He told me later that he was teased by the rest of the Chaplain’s office—a Catholic priest receiving flowers from a mystery woman.

Two days after Christmas, a thin white envelope with blue lettering arrived from Angola State Penitentiary. Addressed to me, it read:

Notice of Release

Pursuant of Department regulation, this office is required to advise you of Nathan Wolfe’s release. He expired on December 23, 2000.

I stood in the driveway holding the letter to my chest. I closed my eyes to the warm sun, thinking about the word “release.” We both had been set free. How strange now to grieve her killer, for the life he never had, the bad choices he made and the love he probably never felt.

My daughter called me from the dock. “Come and take a ride with us, Mommy.” Michael and my girls were waiting for me, ready to take a ride up the river on the boat they’d been refurbishing over the past few months. The last coat of paint was finally dry. I smiled, put the note in my pocket and walked toward them.

~Stephanie Cassatly

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