Forgiveness is taking the knife out of your back and not using it to hurt anybody…or is it?
Losing someone you love is always painful, but what happens when you lose someone you thought you didn't care for anymore? What do you do when the the hollow feeling in your chest doesn't go away once you realize they're gone? Hating is easy. Loving isn't hard, either. And surprisingly, sometimes you need to feel both in order to forgive. This is an inspiring story about the journey of grief, love, and regret, the feelings that sometimes come together to form something else: forgiveness.
There were some things in life that I would never understand. Why my mother left us, how she managed to carry on with her new life without a hole in her heart from leaving her old one behind. What I was going to do without her now that she was gone. My hands moved at their own accord, switching the bracelet from hand to hand. First yanking at it, then soothingly stroking the well-formed stitches, admiring the skill and precision of each intricately woven strand. I fingered the cheap plastic beads, but I didn’t think scornfully of the inferior material anymore. I could only appreciate the way the light reflected off the smooth surface, and how it set off a deep aquamarine colour at night. In the imitation crystal surface of each tiny bead, I saw myself, I saw a precious relationship lost, and I wondered for the thousandth time what I could’ve done to prevent my life from falling apart.
I could still remember wearing the bracelet, anxiously fiddling with it in my lap the day my parents gave me and my brother “the talk.” The one about them loving us, but not each other. How much happier everyone would be if they separated. We were seated around the square kitchen table, each in our own usual little corner. A few of my friends’ parents had gotten divorced, and I thought I knew what to expect. But my mother rewrote one part of the ending. “We think it would be best if you both lived here, with your father.” Instead of talking to my dad about visitation rights and who would live with who for how long at a time, she simply walked away, her pink Chanel bag slung carelessly over her shoulder. Leaving nothing but the lingering smell of her perfume, the echo of her laugh, and haunting memories of the past.
Mothers were supposed to be the one person that felt like home. They were supposed to be there for you when it was time to pick out your dress for your first school dance, they were supposed to give you advice when you got into petty arguments with your friends. They were supposed to be a part of all your firsts and lasts, and laugh about them with you one day in your room while painting each other’s toenails. Instead, however, mine was a distant relative that occasionally called me to check in, and sent me a birthday card when she remembered. Teachers and parents always wore the same look of pity and sympathy when my dad came alone to school plays and parent-teacher conferences. Hearing people whispering “the poor thing,” after discussing carpools to fit inside my dad’s tight work schedule had become normality.
The first time my mom called to organize a girl’s night out, I was ecstatic. I cancelled all my friends’ plans for the weekend and rejected all invitations to sleepovers and parties. Even though I was just spending time with my mother, something that would appear normal in other people’s lives, I locked myself in the bathroom for hours, picking out my clothes and perfecting my hair. I spent the afternoon hovering by the phone, never taking my eyes off the window. I waited patiently for the sound of her car horn or a call from her telling me she got delayed in traffic, watching as the hours ticked by. The day came and passed, I even skipped dinner in hopes that she might want to take me out after missing our original plans. Yet she didn’t call until after nine, as I was about to go to bed.
“Sorry, honey, I got caught up at work and forgot all about our plans. I promise I’ll make it up to you some other time. You understand, don’t you?”
Understand? Understand what, exactly? How she seemed to prioritize everything in front of her daughter, constantly blaming her absence in my life on work calls or emergency meetings? Or the fact that on the rare occasions that I did see her, she would order me Chinese takeout and spend the day on the phone, renting me four-hour movies like Tess? I tried not to get upset, but sometimes it was hard not to be bitter about the realization that I came to terms with months later. My mom had moved on with her life, just as I had. Except, of course, for one glaring difference. Her new life clearly didn’t include me.
Living with my dad and my older brother in their masculine world of boxer shorts and soccer games wasn’t easy. Instead of gradually growing out of my tomboy stage of wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs and becoming a young woman, I was screaming at football players inside the TV and forgetting to do my homework due to falling asleep on the couch while eating microwave meals. While I was supposed to learn to start taking pride in my appearances, I was more focused on perfecting my fidget spinner skills. Every year when it got to May, my friends set off in groups to buy Mother’s Day gifts while I made up some excuse of having other plans, which usually ended up being me sitting in my mom’s old walk-in closet, staring at all the things she left behind. Including myself.
Despite his busy schedule and the everyday worries that came with playing the roles of both parents in my and my brother's life, my dad did his best to fill in all the gaps my mother left behind. He was always there with snacks and cheesy dad jokes whenever my friends came for sleepovers. He never missed a single ballet recital or school performance. Every afternoon when he came home from work, he asked us about our day, ready to hear our ups and downs and give us advice should we ever need it. And most importantly, he was there for us with a brave face when we all lost someone who we were once close to. The memory of the three of us wrapped in each other's arms, sobbing on the front steps of the funeral home will forever be etched in my brain.
Gradually, through the unconditional love of my father and the unwavering support of my friends, I started my healing process. It took time, and it wasn’t easy, but it was there. Slowly but surely, I was learning to forgive. It didn’t mean that all the pain and anger immediately left my body, it didn’t remove the scars that will never fade. But day by day, it became easier for me to breathe. I could think about my past, and what could’ve been, and not collapse into a fit of tears. I learned to accept my mother for who she was and be thankful for the impact she had on my life. I grew to appreciate the lessons she taught me, through all the tears and laughter we caused and shared. And slowly but surely, pain turned to memory.
At the funeral, I heard people saying things like, “Poor girl. Losing her mother at such a young age. Well, she’ll get over it.”
I disagreed. I didn’t think losing a loved one was something you “got over.” It was something you had to learn to live with.
Years later, I knelt in front of the very same spot I once raged and cried at. I smiled when I read the words engraved on the smooth surface of the stone, and I recalled carefully picking them out with my dad and my brother. I remembered sitting at our kitchen table, staring at the empty space that will never again be occupied. I remembered curling up in my bed and refusing to eat for weeks. I pictured the cards and flowers of condolences that piled up in our living room. The cards and flowers that I couldn’t bring myself to touch.
Seeing those words that I once dreaded using in reference to my mom made a thousand memories play across my mind at once, yet somehow, they didn’t feel quite so painful to think about. Not anymore. Laying down the cactus plant I bought from the flower shop, I slid the bracelet me and my mom made together off my wrist and tucked it carefully into the pot. There. Prickly and stubborn, with a little something buried deep inside. Just like us. Taking a deep breath, I finally said the words that I’d missed the chance to say all those years ago.
“Happy Mother’s day, mom.”
As I walked away, I realized that I still didn’t know why my parents’ marriage didn’t work out. I still couldn’t completely understand why my mother chose to detach herself from my life, or why she seemed so much more content on her own. But there was one thing I knew. But there was one thing I knew. Nothing I did could have fixed my parents’ relationship, and that’s okay. It was okay that I didn’t have the typical storybook family. It was okay that my mom wasn’t the best I could have hoped for. Just because I didn’t have the perfect fairytale life didn’t mean I couldn’t have my own happily ever after. Because everything I’d experienced was necessary in order for me to learn the most important lesson there is in life: forgiveness.