It all comes down to this…If I can’t forgive, how can I ever be forgiven? My sins aren’t any cleaner than anyone else’s simply because they are mine.
God chose my mother to be the one to bear me. She met His expectations. For my whole life, I have questioned why and for my whole life, I have focused on the wrong answers. Not because the right answers were not in front of me; but because I chose to blind myself to them.
During my journey of self healing, I forgave many who did unspeakable wrongs to me. But forgiving my mother seemed impossible. Not because what she did (or did not do) was worse than what others did, but because she did not meet my expectations thereby making the pain worse. If I am being truly honest, that is an incredibly unfair standard.
When you allow yourself to love, you choose to overlook shortcomings and focus on the good. That is what is at the heart of forgiveness. That is my choice today.
So many of the things I love best about me are rooted in her. I have been too hurt and angry to acknowledge that. But not acknowledging the truth is only perpetuating a lie. While the lies might’ve been necessary for survival, they are unnecessary if you want to live.
So here are some of the things I am grateful to my mother for…
My Life. She was 19 when she gave birth to me. 19. I forget how young that is when it comes to my mother. She was a child getting through the tumultuousness of adolescence compounded by dysfunction, newly married to a mentally ill and often violent man. And then motherhood. Barely knowing who you are yourself then being responsible for an entirely new human being. How frightening that must’ve been. But here I am anyway. If not for fighting through the fear, I would not be.
Style. My mother was a groovy 70s chick. She looked like a mod Liza Minelli. I used to love going into her closet, finding her patchwork denim bellbottoms, fringed suede bags and platform clogs. I dreamed of looking just as groovy one day.
Feminism. My mother embraced the sexual revolution. Gloria Steinem was among her heroes. As a young woman who had been victimized more than many by the subservience to men, forced into silence, it’s no wonder she so fervently joined the movement to speak out. She subscribed to Ms. Magazine and bought me my most favorite record that was put out by Ms.’s publisher: Free to Be You and Me. I played that record on my victrola until I wore the needle out. There were songs, vignettes and stories of acceptance. That album was crucial in how I saw myself and the world.
Writing. The thing that is most essentially me undeniably came from her. My mother is truly gifted with the written word. Although I never had a lot of opportunity to read her writings, I was always left in awe of the way she was able to articulate her unique point of view.
A mother’s love is unconditional. That’s a two way street. As we mature into adulthood, the child inside lets go of the impossible notion of our mothers being superhuman and embrace their humanity. It is a priceless gift for both mother and child. And today it is a gift i am finally ready to give and receive.
Easter is the celebration of the sacrifice. We are reminded that Jesus died for our sins. As a mother, i think i get that. If i could, i would take any punishment to spare my baby girl from suffering. But that is not always a good idea. I think that we need to be willing to face our own sins a little more often and accept their consequences. After all, being human it is a given that we are sinners. Being repentant celebrates humanity. Is there a more noble way to honor the life we have been given than to accept our frailties and find strength in one another for it?
Be kind. Remember, we are all in this life together.
A few weeks ago, my stepfather called to let me know that my mother was in hospital and would be undergoing heart surgery. He told me to call him for details. It was a brief voicemail. Very out of character. His voice also rang of despair. For many years, my mother has been — very successfully — living with a rare, chronic, incurable disease the end stages of which often include heart failure. For as many years, I knew that I would one day receive a call like this one. Given the status of our relationship for the last four years, I was confident that I knew how I would react. I was wrong.
When that Karma bitch came around to do what she does best, I knew that I would sit myself a front row seat, grab a tub of popcorn and watch the show play out while my dysfunctional life with my mother flashed before my eyes to remind me of why she earned this comeuppance. After decades of being the object of her contempt and neglect…after decades of clawing my way back up from the pit in my soul that abuse left…after years of trying to come to terms with the recovered memories of her being not only complicit but instrumental in facilitating the sexual abuse inflicted upon me as a child…this would be my turn to be strong on her, to watch her be vulnerable and scared then choose to do nothing. I would enjoy the satisfaction of watching the Karmic Wheel spin full circle. This is not what happened when I got the call. It’s not at all what happened.
I had my front row seat. What I also had was an ache in the pit of my chest. My mother has always been terrified of death. Honestly, who isn’t? But my mother has always been almost phobic about it. Given her chronic illness and what was now happening with her heart, the ache I was feeling in my own heart was for the terror she must be experiencing. Almost exactly to the date, two years prior, she was in the same hospital, in the same ward, authorizing multiple revivals of her father’s failing heart.
I didn’t know what was going on with Henry’s (my mother’s father) health until several weeks after he’d taken ill when the three strange visitors arrived on my doorstep, investigating a spontaneous confession he made in the hospital. Prior to their visit to my home, Henry starred in what I believed to be a series of nightmares. Now, at the risk of sounding utterly insane, I’m not sure what they were. Like my mother, Henry was nearly phobic about death. I believe that the thought of one day possibly having to answer for the things he did was the basis of Henry’s phobia. Then as death finally approached to give his body relief from his diseased heart, his chest was cracked open only to be revived to its painful, compromised state…the process repeated several times. It was during the space between one of these revivals that Henry made his excited utterance. It is my completely uninformed, unscientific, gut belief that Henry felt that the evil deeds he had done were anchors keeping him bound to this earth. The three strange visitors almost instantly achieved clarity in Henrys deathbed confession, expressed remorse both that it happened at all and that they couldn’t do anything further to achieve justice because it had been over 30 years, then closed the investigation. With that, I felt a lightness I never experienced before. It was as if the confession of this unspeakable act perpetrated upon me cut loose an anchor holding me down. Just like that, this part of me was free. Afterward, when the nightmare repeated itself, I told Henry that I am no longer a weight holding him here. I repeated this through prayer to my Higher Power. Two weeks later, Henry finally passed away.
Now my mother was the one in the bed. Checking in on her daily, her situation was not as dire as Henry’s was two years ago. Still…it must have been frightening for her…and it was surprisingly so for me. I was conflicted. Each note of sympathy my heart played, my head countered it with disgust at myself for feeling it. Still…I couldn’t stop.
We had our first and final confrontation over what happened to me as a child four years ago. My mother took no responsibility. My mother had no remorse. My mother told me that her allegiance would always be with her father over me. It was that day that I decided that I couldn’t have her in my life any longer. I howled and cried for the rest of the day when I got home. It was the day that grown-up Judy severed all hope that inner-child Judy had that things might ever be different. It hurt. But it was right. The amount of self-healing that has been able to occur in these four years is extraordinary. There was still anger but the rage was gone. That in and of itself is nothing short of miraculous. It has given way to enhanced compassion. I believe it gave me the ability to handle the information I received from the three strange visitors with the composure that I did. It is unfortunate that this is the way it needs to be…but it does.
Somehow I thought that coming to this decision would relieve me of the painful reflection that comes along with being a child whose mother is in poor health, possibly approaching the beginning of the end of her life. I try to see the Brightside in as much as I can so I don’t go mad. I thought this relief was the brightness in this incredibly dark place in my life. Wrong. I find myself instead struggling to find good things to cling to. At first it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. My mother was deliberately absent from my life, even when she was physically present. During those times that we did interact, it was rarely pleasant. I had more rage for her than I did even for her father. It’s a mother’s job, her animal instinct, to protect her child from danger, not place her in it for her own personal gain. That to me is unconscionable. I swore it was unforgivable. Now I find myself here at a crossroads, finding it impossible to walk away. Instead, I dove head first into those haystacks.
The needle that shone brightest was It’s a Wonderful Life. As a child of the ‘70s in Queens, before the million cable channel options afforded to us, every Christmas season we were under the relentless assault of repeated broadcasts of this film. It seemed that whenever my mother was home and it was on, she watched it. Not blank way we do when there’s nothing else on. Each time she was entranced. I would hear her act out some of the dialogue. I would see her cry. Although we sat in the living room together watching the same movie at the same time, it was for her a solitary experience. I realize now that’s likely the reason why she cried at every viewing. The point this film drives home is that no matter how lonely you feel, if you’re doing it right, life is not a solitary experience. The things you do, the words you say, the places you are, effect others, often in entirely unexpected ways. My mother always cried when everyone in the town came together to help George Bailey during his time of need. He didn’t have to ask. Because of the person he was during the whole life he lead – mistakes and all – when he was in trouble, he had people lining up to help him. As they did, they shared what a positive impact he had on their life. That his life mattered. I wondered if the reason she cried just then was the same reason I did; would I ever have a George Bailey moment in my own life?
I lived a goodly portion of the first half of my life feeling like George Bailey did in the first half of the movie; like the world and everyone in it would be better off had I never been born. Unlike George Bailey, I felt this way because some of my earliest memories were of being told just that…and I believed it. The rage I mentioned earlier that I have recently been relieved of was largely directed at myself. I felt like I constantly had to prove to myself and others because I started out as a mistake, I subsequently needed to earn my right to be here. If I made myself useful, I would be needed. And being needed is almost as good as being wanted. Almost. Not quite. I watched George Bailey walk through the “what if” world Clarence created for him. I wondered if I would see something similar if Clarence talked me off one of the many ledges I teetered upon. I wondered if there would ever come a time where someone would tell me that one little something I said or that I did made a difference in their life. As it turns out, there are a lot of someones and somethings. I have been blessed with these beautiful moments personally, most importantly with my baby girl who gives my life meaning with every breath she takes. Through the years, my friends have told me that their lives are better because I’m in it and have missed me when I’ve been gone. Each time I write parts of my own story, inevitably someone tells me that it has given them courage to face and move past what has happened to them in their own lives; some of them are people I don’t even know. I am George Bailey and It’s a Wonderful Life.
My mother never had any friends. My mother kept away from family. My mother very much retreated within herself, becoming the center of her own universe. One of my dearest friends asked me recently if I think that my mother’s self-centeredness was her brain’s way of dealing with her own childhood demons, just as repressing memories was my defense mechanism. I told her that believe that’s true…but it doesn’t condone her transformation from victim to perpetrator. Most of us would live lives as perpetual victims rather than become abusers ourselves. My mind still couldn’t help but wander back to the tears my mother shed during It’s a Wonderful Life and the thought of her frightened in her hospital bed. Is she scared of running out of time to ever have her George Bailey moment? To be at the end of your life alone — even if it is a direct consequence of choices you’ve made — to feel as though you have come and gone from this world invisibly, absent of any positive impact is a heartbreaking idea. To move on from this consciousness to the next, having to answer for the sins you’ve committed and feel you have nobody feeling empty from your loss is an ominous fate.
I can’t erase the things that my mother inflicted upon me. Not from her life or mine. In my recovery, I am told that in order to truly heal myself, I need to “forgive them even if they are not sorry.” I have not yet reached the level of enlightenment necessary to do this. What I can do is what happened two years ago with Henry when the three strange visitors came. I can cut each of us free from the anchor to the past that keeps us bound to it.
I can give my mother a bit of a George Bailey moment by letting her know that her life has meaning in mine. It turns out that my mother was wrong in her original assessment of my life. I am not a mistake. I belong here simply because of the life my mother created and gave to me. How she feels about that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with her. I can only be grateful for the gift. I am.
I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t have the experiences that I did. I wish there was a different way for it to have come about but this is how it was meant to be. I can only embrace the end result. I listen closely. I am compassionate. I make people laugh through adversity. I am one of the helpers.
I inherited my way with the written word from my mother. My rage has always prevented me from admitting that but I’ve always known it to be true. The written page is where my mother’s intelligence and articulation unite to become melody. I can’t say that I share her perspective on anything she’s written but it is always so eloquently put forth and enjoyable to read. My writing has been my personal savior in so many ways. It is how I define myself. It is how I connect with others on more profound levels.
For a variety of reasons beyond my control, saying these things in person was not meant to be. I no longer question the wisdom of the Universe. I have learned to just go with it. Besides, it seems fitting that I utilize my mother’s gift to me of the written word to express my gratitude for it. I hope that my letting go and the peace I’ve made with the Universe about our past allows both my mother and me to move more freely to the next places that each of us will go. I hope that my prayers reach her, as closed off as she may be, so that she is less fearful and feels less alone.
Long before Robbie Coltrane became Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, he was a “nun on the run.” I love this picture. If you haven’t seen it — and most people haven’t — I recommend it. The plot in a nutshell is this…Robbie Coltrane and Eric Idle are career criminals who, after a change in their gang’s hierarchy, decide to do one last heist to bankroll their escape from the gang and the UK altogether. Things go wrong and they find themselves hiding out disguised as nuns. Robbie Coltrane’s character, Charlie McManus, grew up in the Catholic church and uses his unique take on the doctrines to assimilate to their new surroundings in the convent. It is this interesting view that I found most appealing in the film. Here he explains the sacrifice…
” …it’s the doctrine of original sin. You see, we’re all born sinful, except for Jesus who was perfect of course. And he was sent to save us. But how could he save us unless we’re sinning? So we have to go on sinning in order to be saved and go to Heaven. That’s how Christianity works. That’s why it suits so many people.”
I was 20 when I saw this film. This monologue has always stuck with me. I often said who I was 25 years ago is very different than who I am now. But I realize today that is not true. I think that who I was then is the same as who I am now and in all likelihood who I will be tomorrow; it is my perception of who I am, my place in the world and my behaviors that have changed through the decades.
After seeing this film initially, I reflected on this scene and asked myself…is it our moral obligation to sin? My answer was a very strong…yes. Anyone who knew me when I was 20 could easily see why.
Through the decades, as I have exited and entered different stages of my life, I have periodically repeated the question to myself…is it our moral obligation to sin? My answer is inevitably…yes. But where there was once shame and isolation attached to sin, today I see potential for growth and unity.
I grew up differently than most people. I write a lot about that. One of the best things about the way I grew up was that I was exposed to different faiths and, to an extent, learned their traditions, participating in many of them. I was never locked into a single faith. I think that this fed my desire to study theology, exploring a wide variety of religions and philosophies in order to create my own sense of spirituality. In my home, I had a strong Catholic influence from my Abuelita and a strong Jewish influence from my grandmother who raised me, Mama.
Mama didn’t go to temple but always identified herself as a Jew. She was proud of her heritage and passed her pride along to me. We lit the menorah that she placed next to our Christmas tree every Hannukah. We ate matzoh every Passover. On Yom Kippur, we lit yahrzeit candles to honor those who died and, of course, we fasted. Well, Mama fasted. As a child under 13, it was not expected of me. I tried anyway. Some years I was more successful than others. There was something about the tradition that I found comforting. The tradition of fasting is done in order to make the soul feel uncomfortable by denying it the things that give our bodies comfort as humans: food, water, bathing. Experiencing this temporary discomfort lends itself to sympathizing with others when they are in pain or discomfort. It fosters a feeling of repentance for that which we have caused. During this fast of the body and discomfort of the soul, our minds are devoted to reflection upon the past year, our behaviors, interactions and sins. Once a year this confession goes to God and forgiveness is sought.
It took me most of my lifetime to understand that this day can be embraced with love rather than from a place of fear. It is our sin that separates us as humans from the other animals we share this earth with and from the Divine. In the past, I equated sin with “evil.” It isn’t. Evil is a separate entity. While its possibilities live within all of us, it is not a necessary component of the human condition. It is exceptional. Sin is inevitable. It is the burden of the gift of reason our species was blessed with. We are not perfect. We were made to fail. We were made to at times inflict pain and at times to receive pain. And because of this, we have the capacity to forgive, to be forgiven and to become better than we were before. This, too, separates us from the other animals we share this earth with…but it unites us with instead of separates us from the Divine.
I think that it is the acknowledgement of the inevitability of sin that keeps evil away rather than welcoming it. I am in a program that teaches me that life is all about progress, not perfection. I think that when you set expectations of perfection, it necessitates deceit, repression and shame. That is the breeding ground for evil…or at least for living in perpetuity of poor decisions made from a place of fear.
On this Day of Atonement, I face myself without shame. I am human. I am as I was created. Today, I embrace my humanity and learn to forgive myself. I have always been the greatest obstacle in my own personal growth. If God can forgive me, I should find a way to allow myself to forgive me, too. Today, I meditate on what positive action I can take this year to become more, to celebrate my humanity and all that comes with that experience.
So…again I ask…is it our moral obligation to sin? And again inevitably my answer is…yes. It is also our moral obligation to ask forgiveness because that will strengthen our ability to forgive and grow regardless of what faith we follow.
L’shana tovah. G’mar chatimah tovah.
Sweet New Year. May you be sealed in the Book of Life.
This is something that I struggle deeply with and work on every day. I’ve made strides, successfully forgiving some who haven’t asked for it, some who don’t feel they’ve done me wrong. When I realize that’s on them and the choice between resentment/hurt and forgiveness/release is on me and I follow through, I am astounded by the good it does for my well-being.
I’m not sure if I will ever be able to forgive those who have hurt me the most. I know that I need to if I am ever going to truly heal. Already about midway through my life, time is running out for me to reap the rewards of that liberation. I’ll keep working on it. I’m worth it.