Learning (and Relearning) to Forgive My Mother
Clumps of hair fell to the floor. I was razoring my mother's head, making her bald and vulnerable. This was not an act I had prepared for, but neither was cancer, and we met my mother's diagnosis six years ago with as much equanimity as possible. I took the phone call—the news—from the couch, one week before I delivered my twins, conspicuously lacking energy for tears and rage. In her year-long treatment to follow—chemotherapy, surgery—there is little I remember. When I comb through memory and look for the file marked "Cancer," the only one I find and retrieve is "Children."
We were separated by two states at the time, my mother and I, and I couldn't—didn't—care for her. The babies, the distance—they removed me from the everyday of her suffering and what should have been my diligent concern and phone calls. Between treatments, she visited us and rallied. She held the babies and it felt like business as usual. She also took naps in the afternoon, and that signaled change.
At the end of last year, I wrote to my mother requesting that she neither call nor email. I told her that I was covering the ground of forgiveness but it would require both space and time. I needed to be left alone, I said. However wrong-headed I was, I insisted upon distance for figuring out just what was going wrong with us, just what was going wrong with me.
And this may be her most unexpected grace, painful though it felt at the time, because I know I am a difficult daughter, skilled in pride's martial arts and gifted in the rhetoric of snide. For the little we saw each other (now separated by an international border), every time we were together, I tirelessly upbraided her for what she, in my estimation, failed to do right. As we had prepared Thanksgiving together, I insisted on a better way to set the table and knead the bread. Making the smallest of talk, I announced my better ideas for spending one's retirement. And if these and other condescensions lacked bite, I looked to expose a tender family matter and batter what I expected would be her typical silences with incessant, "Why? Why do you do this? Why do you act this way?" (These questions should have been hers.)
"I don't know, Jen. I don't know that I even understand myself."
Standing in the kitchen, she made a lifetime's self-revelation.
To understand a woman who doesn't understand herself, to love a woman I don't understand: This is my calling as a daughter, and I confess to thrashing against how impossible it felt—and to how impossible I had been.
This may be the plight of many of us, young and old, revealing the necessity behind the implacable commandment that God has given to all of his children: "Honor your father and mother" (Exodus 20:12). Despite how our parents have hurt us (and even the most well-intentioned do), despite how we scorn them for their faults and failures, despite having grown into the tall pride of "doing it better," God has bound his children to a duty they find easy to despise: Honor. Respect. Forgive.
It has often been handed to me like a dictum straight from heaven: Forgive! Growing up in a church that preaches Jesus is growing up knowing you've been forgiven and must forgive. But forgive, as an imperative, remains largely impractical in so much of the religious conversations. Forgive! But how?
What does it look like to love—sincerely love—the woman I may never understand? How can I grow close with the woman whose version of intimacy may always differ from my own? How am I to embrace the mother I have?
In the space and time I had cordoned off to do the work of forgiving, a book arrived in the mail: Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers by Leslie Leyland Fields. It had answers to these questions.
In reading Fields's stories (the hunger and poverty of her childhood, the cruel indifference of her father, the abuse he'd inflicted on her sister), I was forced to admit how small my grievances against my mother really were. Standing somewhere between here and Damascus and keeping company with Saul of Tarsus, the scales fell . . . and I could see. My complaints were pittances of reproach. Not unlike what my own children, years into the future, could possibly bear against me.
This prodded me forward. Fields assured me that forgiveness was like the Good Samaritan's work of compassion. However, in order to do it, I would have to see beyond my own needs and find my mother's larger self. "When we do this," Fields wrote, "we discover or remember again the frailty of our parents, the burdens they bore, the weight of their own parents' sins upon them." The curse of unforgiveness would be great, Fields warned. We would become impossible with the impossibility of forgiveness.
If this were true, forgiveness was not the curse to which, on Mount Sinai, we were bound; it was the promise by which we were freed.
"None of this is about excusing sin," Fields clarified. Don't patronize [your parents] by relieving them of responsibility. If they are merely excused, there is no opportunity for them to acknowledge their responsibility, to repent, to seek forgiveness, to move away from the habits and wrongs of the past to another kind of living and relating to people."
Here was concrete language for how. I did not need to deny what had gone wrong. I did not need to pretend away the pain of our relationship's essential brokenness, nor did I need to shoulder full responsibility either for its shattering or its repair.
I had simply to see my mother as a human being—and grant her grace. Which was just another word for describing the forgiving space and time God had granted me, the ground he indeed covered, for my life's worth of eternal grievances.
And now . . .
"I'll need the addresses of all the places we've ever lived," I told her.
"Oh, this is going to be fun!" my mother smiled, cheered by the idea I'd proposed.
We have planned a road trip this summer—my mother, my five children and I. We intend to visit all of the homes I've ever lived in as well as the schools and churches we attended. (Having moved every three years as a child, there are more than a few.) There will be stops in Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee. We'll take to the road, traveling the path of reconciliation.
Last week, I was on the phone with a woman who sounded as if she was thumbing through a phone book. She works for the Jefferson County Schools in Eastern Tennessee, and she gave me the first names of the teachers I've remembered—Mrs. O'Neil, Mrs. Nicely, Mrs. Shannon—as well as their phone numbers. I felt swept back into pigtail days, when I was a child.
This is going to be fun, I thought to myself, and the sudden optimism startled me. I realized I'm looking forward to excavating these stories with my mother and to sharing them with my children. I realized I've stopped running, that I'm no longer what Fields in her book calls a fugitive of my stories and past. Inwardly, I made an unexpected climb toward gratitude—I'm thankful that my mother has survived the cancer, that we have survived each other's own essential brokenness, that we are forgiving.
The human family can't bear up under the weight of our expectations. They are heavy—like guilt. I learn and relearn this—learning and relearning to forgive, even to love, my mother.
Jen Pollock Michel lives in Toronto with her husband and five children. She writes regularly for the devotional publication, Today in the Word, and Christianity Today's Her.meneutics. She is publishing Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith with InterVarsity Press later this year. Connect with her at JenPollockMichel.com or on Twitter @Jenpmichel.