Yesterday, my younger son pointed at a picture on the wall above our dining room table and said, “Grandma!”
“Yes, that’s your grandma. And that’s your great-grandma, and your great-grandpa.”
“I want to meet my grandpa!” exclaimed my older son. I grimaced, for a moment.
“You can’t meet him, sadly,” I told Li’l D.
“Why? Is he dead?” he asked.
“Yes. But Daddy could take you to visit his grave, if you’d like. You could talk to him there.”
Li’l D shook his head aggressively. “No. No, thank you.”
I paused for a moment, wondering if I should mention you, another of his grandpas. “Well, my dad is still alive, but he’s …” I searched for how to explain it in a way a six-year-old would understand. “He’s a criminal.” Those words felt wrong, so I amended them. “He was a criminal.”
“Why did he hurt you guys?” inquired Li’l D.
“I think because when you’re used to being hurt, you think that being hurt and hurting other people is normal.” I paused again and considered whether or not to continue. I decided I should, because you’ve been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve talked about you with my husband, my sisters, and my friend, Ra.
“You can’t meet him now,” I said, “but maybe someday. The last time he and I talked in person, I told him we could only have a relationship if he could acknowledge the ways he’d hurt me, my mom, and my siblings. Without acknowledgment, we’re back in the past, where everything bad in his life was always someone else’s fault. I don’t want to back in that past. I want to stay in this pretty cool now.”
Li’l D’s attention shifted elsewhere, but my mind stayed stuck on that conversation. On history.
I’d thought of you earlier in the day, when I saw a Kenya bumper sticker outside the grocery store. “I think my dad might have gone to Kenya, once,” I told Li’l D. “He definitely traveled far and wide to other places in Europe, Asia, and Latin America!” I said it like you were a great explorer, but I felt flutterings of anger at how much of the world you got to see while my mom suffered, alone, impoverished, and struggling to make the world good for her four scarred children.
I let that anger go by focusing on the preciousness of that moment, including two little boys who light my days … when I remember to look not into the past but at them.
Though I forgave you long ago. anger sometimes comes back, trying to entice me with its seeming might. It whispers, “You feel invincible when you walk with me, don’t you? That’s because you can do any be anything if you don’t let silly fancies like ‘love’ and ‘hope’ delude you.”
But then I remember. I remember that I chose forgiveness, and why. I remember that anger and hatred beget abuse and violence, and that I am doing their terrible work when I hate.
And I think, too, how it’s been a decade since we last corresponded. From my tiny yellow cell phone in Japan, I replied to another messaging showcasing your then-continuing lack of accountability with immense frustration. I told you your life would be in danger if you ever messed with my sister again, even just to try getting out of child support, and I meant it.
That was years before I forgave you. Years before I met Ra, and spent time talking about redemption with her after she served more than a year in prison only to discover time served doesn’t end for felons just because they leave prison.
Is it really rehabilitation if time served isn’t actually enough? she’s asked me. I’ve chafed at the indignity of anyone enduring prison only to be told, over and over again on a daily basis afterward, that they still have not paid enough.
What is enough payment, then?
Why do we pretend prison is about rehabilitation when everything about our system reflects the truth it’s about punishment: punishment when you’re in, and punishment by difficulty finding work and being barred from voting afterward, among countless other indignities. By having people constantly deciding they can judge and penalize you based on what they know of what you did or did not do, even after you’ve served time.
I’ve thought about every word I’ve written about you on my blog, and in comments elsewhere. Once or twice I’ve mentioned sweet things about you, like how you gave awesome airplane rides with your feet, and how much I enjoyed seeing you laughing at our occasional amusement park trips. “Maybe there’s hope for him!” I’d think, before you’d wreck it by trying to tell me how Mom used to beat you and I, seething, said those lines only worked on people who weren’t actually there.
And recently … recently I’ve begun regretting every post-forgiveness word I’ve written referencing your long-distant abuses.
There was a time and place for me to write about the man I once knew as dad, and how hard it was to heal from the devastation he–then-you–wrought. It was important to my healing to write about what I experienced, though that also meant writing about some distant memory of you. I don’t regret that.
But then … then there was actual healing. Not total, because I think certain things will always trigger me and send me back in time twenty years, but large and wondrous healing of my heart, so that I could think of you and wish–as I wished for my mom–that you, too, could have known a gentler life.
Outside a courtroom fifteen years ago, I told you I would always love you, but that you’d never have a place in my life without accountability. It’s impossible to have an adult relationship with someone who’s stuck in a childlike loop of it’s-not-my-fault-it’s-never-my-fault.
It was true I loved you, but I also hated you. I hated how you’d wrecked my mom’s life while telling her she had destroyed yours.
Now, now I am fortunate to know love. I am blessed to see through my husband’s eyes that my mom’s life was more than a wreck. She suffered, but she endured (and endures). She lost, but she held tight as long as she could to four “amazing things” whom she strove to enlighten about the importance of forgiveness.
Do these words sound even? Steady? I can’t tell. I know that tears are streaming down my face as I think about how much I’ve lost to hate and unforgiveness. How much you might have lost to my unforgiveness, when I’ve written about long-past misdeeds after significant healing.
With each additional word I wrote, I added a new prison bar around you, forcing the you of today to be the man I distantly remember. Forcing you today to continue being you-then, despite having since seen your tenderness for your third and current wife and her children.
I can’t help but think of that tenderness and wonder if my own apparent antagonism has left you feeling unforgiven and, perhaps, unforgivable.
That’s not who I want to be. I want to help people be at peace today, not be trapped in violent yesterdays.
I want to stop imprisoning anyone or anything, in the past, in hatred, in rage, in anything that pulls down instead of enabling buoyant lovingkindness.
I want people to be free … free to live, free to love, free to be more than the wrongs they once perpetrated. I want that completely.
I do not want my threatening last words to you to be my last words to you, though I stand by what I said at the courthouse: without acknowledgment of past wrongs, I must love you from the safe distance of one who can’t be completely sure the past is completely the past.
If that doesn’t or can’t happen, that’s okay. My life is full of vibrant, active love expressed abundantly, and my kids–and their cousins–also know they are well and truly loved by many.
But if someday our paths do again pass over coffee and words of catching-up, that would be nice, too. I don’t want to live with even a pinky finger in the past, and I don’t want you to live there, either.
As I conclude this letter, my boys are dancing to Sara Bareilles over and over again. “I wanna see you be brave,” she sings, and I think,
with a lightness in my heart that could never have existed without sitting down and writing my own I’m sorry,
that I want to be brave. I want to love,
even when it’s hard, because it is
less hard than it is right.