Forgiveness Establishes a Positive Legacy by Dr Ira Byock
All the passages below are taken from Ira Byock’s book, “The Four Things That Matter Most”, published in 2004
Anger, blame, guilt, and regret cause pain that divides people who love each other or want to love each other. The words Please forgive me and I forgive you can be the bridge that reestablishes connection and allows healing to happen.
Jennifer Matesa, a fellow writer, graciously offered the wisdom of her relationship with her mother and their final days together in a story she told me one afternoon.
Jennifer had always hoped to hear “Please forgive me” from her mother, but Mary projected an authoritative, not particularly affectionate air. Her mother rarely admitted being wrong or making an error in judgment—and her mother never said, “I’m sorry.”
Dropping Pretense in Order to Heat
At 58, Mary was diagnosed with cancer that had spread to her brain. After the diagnosis was confirmed, Mary’s oncologist told her that there was nothing he could do except refer her to hospice for palliative care in order to improve her comfort and the quality of her life.
“What he didn’t tell my mother,” Jennifer said, “was that she would lose her sight, her hearing, her ability to speak, her balance, and her mental capacity. He also didn’t mention that the cancer from her lung was now burning its way through her central nervous system and that she would experience seizures. During the seizures she would lose track of her thoughts and words. She would stare intently at some invisible person or scene, or perhaps at nothing at all.
Since these staring spells were not grand mal seizures, in which people fall to the floor convulsing, sometimes no one would notice when they occurred. One day, during a seizure, Mary left the water running in the kitchen sink while making her husband’s breakfast; the drain plug was in, and he caught the tap just as the sink was about to overflow. All the while Mary was staring vacantly at an open cupboard. Another morning, without realizing it, she put out four slices of toast and an English muffin for him to eat. Jennifer’s father made a joke about his appetite to cover the awkward moment, but the incidents of Mary’s “going away” were poignant and telling, nonetheless.
The oncologist also never instructed Jennifer or her family to monitor her mother’s vital signs during seizures. Once, when she’d “gone away,” her mother had a pulse racing at more than 200 beats per minute, the result of a sustained burst of adrenaline from her adrenal glands’ reflex response to the stress of the seizure in her brain. Jennifer and her brother were shocked and immediately called 911. All the while, their mother’s face was fixed in a faraway, seraphic half-smile.
Fortunately, Jennifer and her parents lived in the same city and she tried to visit them every day. Throughout her mother’s illness, their relationship had been mutually supportive, even friendly, but not overtly affectionate. It became clear to Jennifer that her mother, although only 58, was going to die soon, so Jennifer had spoken to a counselor who advised her, “Get it clear between you if you can. You only have so much time. You need to hear that she loves you or you will regret it for the rest of your life.” Jennifer decided to go for it.
One afternoon, Jennifer and her small son arrived to find Mary working in fits and starts on her goddaughter’s First Communion dress, trying to apply a large bow to the back of the waist. At this point, Mary was almost deaf, and her right eye wandered; she struggled with the slippery synthetic satin, lace, and tulle. She’d forget her place, then doggedly pick up from where she’d left off. The dress would be her hands’ last work. She worked on it in silence.
As she watched her mother, Jennifer weighed her words, then dived in.
“Mom,” she asked, “do you want me here? Are you happy when I come to visit?”
Mary raised her eyes to her daughter’s face, a sewing needle held between her teeth. Her weight loss and near-baldness gave her a “plucked-chicken” look, Jennifer said, but she was able to recognize her mother’s beauty—her dark brown eyes, set at a tilt; her high cheekbones and sweetly pointed nose.
“It’s been hard between us,” Mary told her slowly. “We’ve spent so many bad times that I don’t think we know where or how we stand with each other.”
Her mother struggled to find words amid the damage the cancer had wrought; she talked haltingly about needing to take the time to “rebuild things” so that they could have “better times.” Jennifer recognized that her mother was searching for a way to convey her feelings. Jennifer hung on every word, hoping her mother’s mental clarity would not give out.
“Mom never apologized or said, `I made mistakes and I am sorry; please forgive me,”‘ Jennifer told me. “Instead she used the passive voice—‘There were mistakes,’ she said. I knew what she meant, though. It took a lot of strength to relinquish her pride and pretense of motherly perfection and acknowledge even that mistakes had been made. She was beginning to speak of her sorrow, in her proud way, and in perhaps the only way she could find in her illness.”
“When I imagine dying,” Jennifer continued, “I always imagine being lucid till the end. Isn’t that what we’re all afraid of: confronting death with a lucid mind, a clear eye? But how much more terrifying it must be to feel yourself slipping from life without being able to speak, see, hear, or even think.
“So Mom and I talked about our relationship. I told her that I felt for her because of the way she had been raised—in a cold, hard home full of work and fear. This was the first time I’d ever told her I felt any compassion for her. I think she recognized that I was apologizing for the many times I snapped at her impatiently or judged her unfairly. Her eyes grew distant again, but I realized she was not going away; she was looking back into her childhood.
“Then she said, `I don’t know why anyone should have to grow up with such a level of . . .’ She faltered, and I worried that the thought was eluding her. `Hatred,’ she finished simply. `And anger,’ she added. `My own mother was . . .’ I thought this time that she really had lost the thought. What had her mother been? Seconds passed. `A destructive force,’ she said, with finality.”
Jennifer asked her mother what they could do to become closer. Was there anything they could say? It was then that her mother apologized, in another way.
“`I know I passed things to you that my mother passed to me, that were destructive,’ my mother stammered slowly. I was absolutely astonished. It was true, and I had longed to hear her say so, but I had no idea my mother knew it, or felt that way. Again, I prayed that she wouldn’t lose track of the thought.”
Jennifer watched her mother’s eyes search intensely beneath her tightly knitted brow before she spoke again. “She said, `I know that you are the way you are, because I am the way I am, because my mother was the way she was.”‘
This crystallized an idea that Jennifer had worked for years to understand: the hatred and anger, the physical punishment, the screaming, the criticism, the name-calling, the days and days of cold-shoulder treatment she had experienced as a child were not her fault as much as they were a painful legacy passed blindly down through the generations.
But her mother was letting it go, and Jennifer wondered if she could, too.
“`I don’t have to be that way anymore. There is no longer time enough to be that way,’ my mother said, and then, after another concentrated pause, she added, `It’s going to stop with him,’ and she pointed a finger toward my eighteen-month-old son who was playing with blocks on the floor, blissfully unaware of what was transpiring. `The bad stuff can stop,’ Mom told me, `but the good stuff can be passed on. That’s what I want us to do.”‘
Jennifer told me that her mother’s frankness enabled her to say that she was sorry if she had been stingy with her affection or appreciation toward her mother. Her mother replied that she did not feel that way. In so few words, layers and years of hard feelings melted away.
Then, with great effort, Jennifer’s mother rose stiffly and put her arms around her daughter.
“`You are the artist of my life. I am so proud of you,’ she told me.”
“I held her close to me and thanked her. I took the satin and pins out of her hands. And that evening, I spent five hours finishing her work on that dress.”
With the help of hospice, and the constant care of Jennifer, her father, her brother, and her sister, Jennifer’s mother died some six weeks later, peacefully, in her own home.
I wondered what Jennifer thought were the main lessons of her remarkable experience with her mother.
“Some people might think that the words we shared as mother and daughter that day were too little and too late,” she said. “It would have been better if Mom and I never needed to have such a conversation. But family life is messy, filled with loose ends that are rarely tied up in bows.
“Here is what I know,” she continued. “My mother died three and a half years ago and hardly a day has gone by that I have not recalled her words to me, and mine to her, at her kitchen table that day. Every day I recall the responsibility I bear. If the anger and hatred is in fact to stop with me, and my son is to be free of it, I am the one who must stop it. In turn, that begins with the way I treat myself. That was the gift that hearing my mother’s sorrow gave me: the permission—the requirement—to begin to treat myself with patience, acceptance, and love, and so to treat others likewise. To begin to forgive her. And in forgiving her, in a deeper way than I can articulate, I begin to forgive myself. I now know there is no longer time enough to be any other way.”
Forgiveness Establishes a Positive Legacy
Jennifer and Mary’s story demonstrates the power and healing potential of forgiveness. Painful legacies can arise from damaging emotional patterns that are perpetuated from generation to generation. As one damaging emotion gives rise to the next, a destructive pattern can result, like the jarring, punishing washboard ridges in a dirt road. Forgiveness is a courageous way of saying, “Enough is enough!” It requires us to confront the imperfections and pain of the past, not ignore or excuse them. Once we can see them and their origins with compassion, we can again experience the love that is our birthright. With love we can pave a future that is healthy and whole. [50-57]