I think – at least in my own life – forgiveness is more accompanied by confusion than anything else. Not relief, or peace, or love, or completion, but more a sense of, ‘Well, ok, what am I supposed to do with this?’
I’ll give you an example:
I had this relative that everyone in the family hated. His wife was nice, and he was mister get-rich-quick scheme. He was always shucking and jiving and coming up short because he was a sucker. He was also big into conspiracy theories. Over the years it got worse and worse to the point that no one could stand him in the family, and I suspect no one could stand him out of the family either. If his wife – who we loved – was invited to a party, he would just sit in the corner, completely ignored.
If you made the mistake of saying ‘hi,’ he’d try to talk you into paying for a hyperbaric oxygen chamber for him to start his own business, as that’s the coming thing, or something equally groan-inducing.
I grew to hate him because of the pain he caused my relative. She…I could never tell if she was unaware of what a mess he was, or if she was afraid to leave, or if she actually believed his latest rivulets of ridiculousness were actually gonna work and this time they’d make it big. I dunno. I guess I never will.
I had this recurring fantasy that one day she’d die – I just always assumed he’d outlive her as her health was not great – and then at the funeral I’d walk up to him and say, “Now that she’s gone, neither I nor the rest of the family have any reason to tolerate you. We hate you, and stay away. You are completely alone for the rest of your life.” The wording changed from time to time, but something mean like that. Events didn’t play out like that.
Over time I began to realize he was a paranoid schizophrenic, or most likely so. Undiagnosed. That’s one of those diseases that gets worse as you age if untreated, and he was too paranoid to ever go see a shrink. And he definitely got worse as he got older.
I don’t think anyone else in the family ever got that he was crazy, I think they just thought that he was despicable, and he certainly did some despicable things, so they weren’t wrong, but I’m not at all sure where the line between “Utter bastard,” and “Lunatic who really isn’t responsible for his actions” lies. I assume it’s a wandering border that snakes around a lot. I still hated him, of course. He was so easy to hate.
Then he got sick, and after a lot of rigmarole I won’t bore you with, he ended up in hospice. I called to straighten out some arrangements, and then the nurse guy said, “You wan to talk to him?” I said, “Sure,” and to this day I don’t know why. Probably just because it would have seemed mean to say, “No.” I’m plenty mean, but I don’t generally want total strangers to know it.
I ended up on the phone with him, and he was pretty deaf, so I had to talk very loudly. I asked him how he felt, and he said he was in a lot of pain, which wasn’t possible as the staff informed me they had pumped him full of oh-so-very-much dope.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked. It was a safe question because I’m 700 miles away and poor, and hence nobody ever asks me to do anything.
“It won’t be long now,” he said. In my mind’s eye I could see him staring at a big black hole that doesn’t exist somewhere between the foot of the bed and the far wall. In the background I could hear staff futzing around with tubes and wires and things.
“Ok, well, I’ll check in on you again tomorrow,” I said.
“Oh, God,” he said.
“We love you,” I lied. Straight-up lied.
“Ok, thank you.”
Not an hour later he died. I was the last person to talk to him. Last in the family, anyway. The last thing I did was tell him that he was loved. He totally absolutely completely was not. Nobody loved him. He only knew like six people in the world, none of them could stand him by that time. I’m not some big, noble hero, I was just being polite. A polite lie for a dying man, and that’s all it was. There’s nothing noble in it.
So that hung over me for a few days, that mine was the last familiar voice he heard, and that even though I hate him, the last words from the family were nice. It was a weird, weird, weird irony. Confusing.
Time passed, and I got to thinking more about his obvious mental illnesses. Most of the rest of the family never considered the option, they just disliked him because of very good reasons. Most of them have since died. Counting me, I think there’s only three people who even remember him. No, wait, four.
He had pissed away every dime he’d made in one lunatic scheme or another, and there was no funeral. He’d alienated everyone in 700 miles in every direction. I honestly do not know what happened to his body. Probably in a bar-coded thermos in some state-run crematorium somewhere, filed and forgotten.
His illness…well, I’m not saying he wasn’t responsible for a lot of the bad stuff he did, but his illness probably tended to push him in the direction of bad decisions. They were still decisions, mind you. I won’t go into what all he did. I got to thinking about my own mental illness, which does not drive me to make poor decisions, but it does make me pretty goddamned useless. If I’m better than him on some measure, it’s just the love and support of my dad in my early life, and my wife in the second half of my life. But I’m still pretty useless, and I still pretty much hate myself most of the time.
Awful thing to hate yourself, but I think it’s served me well. I’ve never deliberately hurt anyone, and I’ve only accidentally hurt very few. I’m worthless, so I tend to value others. In his case, well, you can’t second-guess crazy, right? I’ll never know, but I think that capacity for self-loathing wasn’t there to protect him. People like harmless, interesting, sad folks. People have always looked out for me. Even my bullies on occasion (Weirdly enough). Nobody likes the oily wheeler-dealer who’s lost money on his last 15 sure things, and wants you to fund number sixteen.
I’m digressing. He’s dead and nobody misses him, not even me. But how different from me was he? Well, a hell of a lot, honestly. Just the same, I do totally understand what it’s like to just never quite get the hang of life, how there’s some great gulf fixed between what the common people do every day without thinking about it, and the stuff that I can do, which ain’t much. Him, too, I assume.
So he died, and I told him, “I love you.” As I’ve said, I was lying. DIdn’t love him then and I don’t love him now, but I guess I’ve forgiven him. I’m not sure if it’s because he was somebody’s baby full of hope once, and he came to a very bad end, and I’m sad over the loss. Or maybe I forgive him because I can see a disastrously failed version of myself in him, had I been so unlucky as to be unloved over the last 51 years. Or maybe it’s just because everyone connected with it is dead: His wife, his kid, the extended family. It’s all irrelevant now.
I don’t know, though the second one seems least likely.
But he’s dead, and I’m haunted by being the last to speak to him, and I’m happy I gave him a nice goodbye, assuming he was even aware of it (As I said: oh-so-very-much dope)
And I forgive him, I guess, but I’m more confused by the forgiveness than relieved by it.
And that always seems to happen to me, though this is obviously the most dramatic example.