It is, after a fashion, a legend of the fall.
Not mine, mind you — although one could say my fall was in some ways greater.
My wife’s mother was, though elderly, quite strong and independent — alert, cantankerous, losing a little memory here and there, in nearly constant pain from vertebrae once tall and straight but now arched and foreshortened. It seemed simple enough: bend down to retrieve the dropped utensil, a task done mindlessly a million times before. But this time, different: muscles weakened by nearly nine decades, joints worn thin and crepitant by a century’s steps, she could not maintain balance and fell backwards to the floor.
The call came shortly thereafter, and was not the first: a prior fall six months before had broken no bones but nearly broken her spirit — months of slow recovery, fighting pain and hopelessness, had by some small miracle been conquered, with much relief among us but a lingering fear of an even-worse encore. The curtain call came, to no applause and much apprehension.
The hospital stay was long, and replete with the consequences of falls in the elderly: rapid loss of strength from recumbency; mental confusion from requisite opiates; quiescent health problems charging to the fore to complicate a recovery trivial for the young but disastrous and often deadly in the eighth decade of life. When she was finally discharged to the nursing home, she was hardly recognizable as the same individual who had fallen little more than one week before.
She had sustained no fractures, but there were fractures aplenty developing. The enfeeblement of an elderly parent quickly finds the fault lines in a family, as the stresses of disrupted schedules, new financial strains, and disputes about responsibilities and recovery find old tapes playing and new resentments kindling. The lid blew off at mom’s birthday dinner, when a planned family meeting found my wife and her siblings squaring off, two on two, with one storming out and all looking for lightning rods to discharge their pent-up passions.
The war raged hot for weeks, with angry phone calls and tears, misunderstandings and mischief. My wife, remorseful over her initiation of the dispute, desperately tried to patch it up and reconcile, egged on by siblings who simply wanted the conflict to cease — all the while taking sides and launching back door verbal raids of their own. But her every attempt at reconciliation seemed only to fuel the fire, as the offended party went on offense, quietly working the phones on a “fact-finding” mission to undermine her credibility and prove her malfeasance. I, meanwhile, studiously avoided involvement in this sibling insurrection, although the incessant vengeful assault on her character was taking its toll, and a simmering anger began brewing within. It burst forth when one such fact-finding call was made to an employee of mine, against my express wishes. Litigious insinuations and lavender imprecations poured forth like some foul excrescence — and now I was right in the thick of things.
A carefully-written letter, apologizing for my actions while explaining the roots of our anger, proved not a balm but a bombshell. It became clear that a truce must ensue, and all communication was put on hold. The war became cold, and a frigid silence ensued. Incoming calls went unanswered, incoming e-mails ignored. My wife, far more noble than I, continued her efforts at reconciliation, though I encouraged her to freeze out the errant ingrates. She encouraged me to forgive, knowing well the consequences of a resentment slowly simmered to perfection, seasoned with self-righteous anger and a dash of wounded ego. I would tell her “I’m working on it” — but reality said otherwise, as mid-night mental rages wrecked sleep and drop-forged a heart silently steeled against grace and mercy.
Silence was golden, and allowed me to believe the matter was finally behind us — until a call and e-mail from my wife’s brother arrived, requesting a conversation for reconciliation. I wanted no part of it, being convinced that nothing had changed, that in their eyes we remained the evil perpetrators and they the innocent victims. The old fury returned, as dark sleepless nights were spent crafting disparaging replies, honing the knife blade to surgical precision with words rational only in the quiet insanity of eyes wide open in a room dark with demons. The committee was in session; its judgments final, its justice, harsh.
The crush of Christmas kept futility at bay, as guests and gift-gathering granted no reprieve to reply. A quiet Saturday seemed providential, as my wife and daughter set out to shop, and deliver Christmas cookies to friends — and to her brother, in yet another conciliatory exercise I deemed well-meaning but pointless.
But a change in plans changed the plan: “Would you deliver the cookies to George?”
I knew what she would ask before she opened her mouth: “No, I’m really not interested.”
“You know, you really need to forgive him.”
“I’m working on it.”
“You can ‘work on it’ until the cows come home — forgiveness is a choice, a decision — not a project.”
The moment when the hammer of conviction strikes the anvil of self-will is intense, pitting fear against faith, fury against forgiveness, in a struggle for their place in the soul. I sat, silently, for several minutes, not wanting to make the choice I knew must be made.
There was, in the depths of my spirit, a soft lowing. The cows had come home.
I arrived at his door, unannounced, and rung the bell. After a few anxious moments, he answered.
His shock was palpable. Men have greeted the Grim Reaper with greater joy; his face was ashen. The bear hug I gave him was reciprocated as a man would embrace a corpse.
He regained his composure as he scrambled to find his wife. I set the cookies on the coffee table, and set about listening far more than talking. It was civil, at times even humorous, as a growing sense of ease filled the room. When I left, nearly an hour later, the relief was palpable — but more than that, the rage was gone. The furies had fled; for the first time in months, the embers had cooled, and a heart was at peace.
We solved no disputes that day, reached no compromises, resolved few misunderstandings. Forgiveness is none of those things, really. I chose to give up my right to be right, to accept that the issues which divided us were less important than the relationship which bound us.
I paid the price for an injury with the currency of pride.
And I received in return something far more valuable: peace.