Forgiveness, Part 1: Mothers and Children

Every once in a while, I encounter a book, a movie, or a poem that really speaks to me, so much so that I will re-read or re-watch it many times over.  There is one movie that I’ve watched so many times that I can practically recite the whole script, and that’s saying a lot since my ability to memorize those kinds of details is limited.  But apparently if you watch something enough times, you can’t help but remember it.  Or maybe its because it speaks to me.  Whatever the case, that movie is imprinted in my memory.

Not quite a year ago as of this writing, an episode of a favorite podcast was released in which the topic was forgiveness.  The stories shared are so piercing, so haunting to me that I keep going back to it, listening again.  Knowing myself as I do, I know this means that it is a tool for me to understand my own loss and pain and need to forgive.  As with the movie that I have watched so many times, this podcast holds keys for me.  I must derive some comfort or solace simply from listening.  Why else would I listen over and over?  I don’t mean to imply that I am pressing the play button in some serial fashion; rather, it has been weeks or months between the times I have re-played the episode.  Sometimes, I have even played it as I was drifting off to sleep because the voices are now familiar and comforting.

Is this weird to you?  Perhaps.  I imagine there’s something you do that I would find weird, also.  It’s just a thing I do.  I latch onto stuff until I work out whatever it is I need to work out and then I let it go.  Like this podcast, I often don’t know what it is I am working out, but I do know when I am done because I simply lose interest in it.  I don’t realize it at the moment I am done; rather, at some later time, I become aware that I haven’t re-watched or re-read or re-listened in a long while.  Maybe I am trying to fill some time and I see the movie in my cue or the podcast on the list in my phone.  However it happens, the awareness that I have moved on usually comes to me at some point.  That does not mean that I have a clear idea of what the lessons were that I learned.  I only know I have learned them.

When Sue Klebold speaks of the Columbine tragedy, she speaks of her guilt as the mother of one of the shooters.  Her son, Dillon, and his friend killed 13 people and injured 20 more before killing themselves on that fateful day in 1999.  The incident served as a blueprint for others to commit similar acts of violence since then, and her guilt extends from not knowing that her son was considering these homicidal and suicidal acts to the ripple effects that the Columbine tragedy has had.  Guilt is part of parenting even in the best of situations, as Sue points out.  Yet, as she tried to reconcile how she may have contributed to Dillon’s actions, how she failed to see it, how she didn’t know that he Columbine Sue Kleboldbought a gun, she just couldn’t identify anything she could have done differently that would have helped her know what he was planning.  Sue said, “I couldn’t think of anything I had done to teach him that violence was a solution to any problem, but for me, I have to own this.  This is the path of my life.  I didn’t choose it, but I have to own it.”

I think I have really keyed on this idea of owning the life you have whether you chose it or not.  For so much of my life I have not controlled or chosen the circumstances, and yet I had to face them, manage them, endure them.  Who among us hasn’t had to do the same?  Of course, this is a rich podcast and all three of the stories shared speak to me.  This one, though, is like a permanent marker that I have used to write on my skin, it has such a significant impact.  Perhaps it is because my daughter chose to cut me out of her life at the very moment I thought we had made a breakthrough in our relationship.  Maybe the fact that I was so very wrong about what was happening with my daughter and our relationship, just as Sue describes being so unaware of what was going on with Dillon, is why I connect to her story so deeply.  Maybe it is the loss that she describes, and the crush of being told by others that her loss cannot compare to that of the families of her son’s victims.  I relate to this idea that somehow my loss is not as bad as other parents’ losses because she is not dead or because I made mistakes in parenting her and maybe I deserve this excommunication, although it feels pretty bad.  I don’t know that I will ever know all the ways that Sue Klebold’s story touches me, but its impact has been penetrating.

On the issue of mistakes, I can tell you that every parent makes them.  I know this and still I feel guilty, different, less.  I look at the outcome of my daughter’s life thus far – she’s 33 years old, has a good job at which she has been promoted, and seems to be a good parent – and I think that my parenting didn’t suck too bad if she is a contributing member of society.  But can we take credit for our children’s successes?  If we do, must we also take credit for their shortcomings?  Where is the line between individual responsibility and parental liability?  Is the age of the child relevant, and when do they become responsible for their own actions?   Can anyone really know the mind of another person, even their own child?  As a society, we blame the parents for the child’s actions even as we each know from our own experience that our influence over our children is limited.

Perhaps I just want to know how to forgive myself for not doing all the right things, for my best efforts at parenting not being good enough.  Maybe I want to know what to do with the guilt I feel over my daughter’s teenage suicide attempt, of which I was unaware

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Wrightsville Beach, NC

until she listed my lack of awareness of it among the reasons she hates me a few years ago when cutting me out of her life.  I know that I did the best I could at the time and I just didn’t know.  There is no way to go back in time and change things; the past just is.  I can only be here now and move forward.  If my daughter chooses the past over the present and the future, there is not a damned thing that I can do about that.  But I can learn to forgive myself for not being good enough then, just as I forgave my own mother for the ways she was not able to be there for me, even if my daughter never forgives me.  I didn’t choose this path, but I have to own it.  It is my reality.

I want to leave you with Sue Klebold’s words, because I really can’t do better.  Though she speaks from her own experiences, the sentiment of the thoughts and feelings of others being beyond our control rings true in my life as well.

“If love were enough to stop someone who was suicidal from hurting themselves, suicides would hardly ever happen.  But love is not enough.  I’ve learned that no matter how much we want to believe we can, we cannot know or control everything our loved ones think and feel. And the stubborn belief that we are somehow different, that someone we love would never think of hurting themselves or someone else, can cause us to miss what’s hidden in plain sight.  And if worst case scenarios do come to pass, we will have to learn to forgive ourselves for not knowing, or for not asking the right questions, or not finding the right treatment.  In the end, what I know comes down to this: even the most vigilant and responsible of us may not be able to help, but for love’s sake, we must never stop trying.”

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