100. My Guilt Collection

100. My Guilt Collection

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

My Guilt Collection

The years teach much which the days never knew.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Please! What should I do?” she begged.

“I’ve already told you,” I answered, suddenly aware of the burnt macaroni and cheese odor that hung in the air. “Darn it! Hang on for a second,” I muttered, dropping the phone down on the cluttered counter. Armed with a hot pad holder I quickly rescued my over-done dinner and set it to cool, while in the background my four-year-old’s crying reached a new crescendo.

Even though my girlfriend always called at the worst possible times, I never had the heart to turn her away. On this night, however, I wasn’t in the mood for it all. Unfortunately, I grabbed the phone and continued in a not-so-nice tone: “You fear for your life and yet you stay with him. You’re not married so you could leave. I’m scared he might kill you—but if you won’t help yourself…” My voice trailed off and then it was silent.

Suddenly, my phone crackled. Through the static she repeated her usual words: “But, I love him.”

“Listen,” I paused, as the phone hiccupped again, “Can you hear that?”

“Yes,” she whined, “so tell me what to do before the line goes dead.”

“Leave him,” I snapped. “We’ve had this conversation for almost a year and nothing’s changed. I’m sorry I can’t help you right now, but my little one is crying and I’ve burned our dinner.” At that moment the phone line roared and then disconnected us, which frequently happened during our conversations. At this point, one of us always called the other one back, but this time neither of us did.

Although I still cared about her and thought of her often, it wasn’t until I found an old photograph of us together that I realized eighteen years had passed since that last conversation. My kids had grown, and hopefully she had found happiness. It seemed like a perfect time to call and rekindle our friendship. I was confident that she would forgive me for losing my patience the last time I had talked to her. At least I hoped she would.

While searching for her current phone number on the Internet, I discovered she had married. Minutes later I was excited when a familiar photograph popped up. When I clicked it I found this: “Our beloved, daughter, mother, stepmother, grandmother, aunt, and friend, departed from this earth much too soon.”

“Oh no,” I moaned. “What have I done?” Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined this tragic scenario. I was so sad, and also felt so guilty. I hated myself for what I had done. I closed my door and wept. Alone in the darkness I created the perfect hell where I tormented myself with every “what if” or “if only” my mind could concoct. Deep down I would never forgive myself. Because of me, my sweet friend had died believing that I didn’t care about her.

“You blame yourself for everything,” said my husband. “You collect guilt like others collect stamps. You had a family to care for. Her constant calls took time away from your family—a lot of time. You also worried constantly about her.”

“But, she’s dead,” I cried. “I feel so bad about the way things ended.”

“That’s not your fault, either,” he replied.

In truth, my husband was right about my collection of “what ifs” and “if onlys.” However, this was more horrific than anything I’d collected so far. As my anguish deepened, I yearned for comfort, but found none. Days later, desperate to find peace, I went for a long hike through the forest where instead of talking out loud to myself—something I’m well known for—I spoke to my girlfriend.

“Wherever you are, you know how I feel. I was all you had—and I let you down. There’s no doubt in my mind that you’ve forgiven me, but you know I can’t carry this load. I need to find a way to forgive myself.” When I finished speaking, I felt completely whipped. There were no goose bumps, no signs from beyond—only a strange, empty, numbness.

That evening, I decided to read her obituary one last time. Usually, the bitter memory of our final conversation raced through my head, but this time I found myself laughing hysterically as memories of our escapades flew through my mind. Some made me laugh so hard I cried as I remembered everything—including the first time we had met. Our time together flashed before my eyes and with it, all of the times I had been there for her. At that moment, I knew in my heart that I had come through for her as a friend, and that my plea for forgiveness toward myself had been heard. I finally felt at peace.

Hopefully, someday, I’ll forgive myself for the rest of the “what ifs” and “if onlys” in my collection, but for now this is a start.

~Jill Burns

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