by Scott Stabile
I forgive the man who killed my parents completely and without reservation. I forgave him a long time ago, but not until years after he took their lives and uprooted mine.
Photo: Scott Stabile at Banyen Books
I have four distinct memories from my mom and dad’s funeral when I was 14. I remember sitting at the funeral home, as hundreds of people paraded past my parents’ closed coffins to pay their respects. The only face I recall is that of my classmate, Jodie Goldberg, whose eyes caught mine as she waited in line. She gave me a nervous, sympathetic wave. I stared for a second and then looked down at my lap. I also remember crying in a side room away from all the mourners, with two of my sisters standing nearby. I overhead one sister tell the other she didn’t know how I, the baby of the family and devoted mama’s boy, would be able to survive without our mom. I didn’t know, either. How would I? How could I? The third thing I remember was the moment before my parents’ caskets were going to be carried off. I leapt from my chair and threw myself against my mother’s casket, screaming and crying so they wouldn’t take her away. “Mom! No! Mom! No!” I remember shouting, over and over, not willing to say goodbye. One of my brothers – I’m not sure which one – pulled me off and led me out of the room.
Incredibly, I don’t know if that last scene really happened or if I saw it in a movie or read it somewhere and owned it for myself. I can see the moment in my mind and feel it in my bones, but there’s a part of me that questions whether it actually took place. It feels much more dramatic than I knew myself to be. Of course, many things I thought I knew about myself changed when my parents died. I was one Scott the day before their death and a different one the day after. An orphan can never be the same person he was with parents. The day of the funeral, and the weeks around it, are mostly lost to me. Still, I have that vision of myself, body pressed against her coffin, screaming, arms outstretched, holding on to a little more time with her. I’ve never asked my siblings if it happened because I don’t want to know if I made it up. I want my last memory with my mom to be real.
The last thing I remember that day was being in the funeral home parking lot with my three brothers. They were talking and smoking as I sat on a ledge staring at the ground with one thought in mind: I will never forgive my father for my mother’s death.
Luckily for me, I didn’t end up keeping that promise.
The man who killed my parents was caught and sent to prison for life. He’s still there. I have a vague memory of being at his sentencing with my siblings. I don’t know why we were there, really. I’m not sure what difference it made to anyone. Maybe we wanted the judge to see our devastated family so that he wouldn’t be lenient in his sentencing. Or we wanted our parents’ killer to see the faces of the seven orphans he’d created so that he couldn’t ignore the magnitude of his crime. Perhaps his sentencing promised the only closure my older siblings knew they would find within their grief; being present for his conviction provided a breath of relief within a universe of hopelessness. With mom and dad’s killer off to prison, we could at least lock away that part of the horror.
Though that day remains a blur, my parents’ murderer does not.
I remember his name, of course, and even his face, sometimes more clearly than I remember my parents’ faces. Maybe because his actions, even more than my parents’ up until that point, impacted most profoundly the person I would become. He had changed my life more than anyone. He had taught me the meaning of loss and introduced me to unimaginable grief. He had turned me into an orphan overnight.
Even so, I forgive him.
I forgive the man who killed my parents completely and without reservation. I forgave him a long time ago, but not until years after he took their lives and uprooted mine. Not until I simmered in blame and rage and fantasized all the violent ways I would have loved to take revenge. Not before I quieted my fury by imagining his troubled life to that point and the saddened loved ones he would likely never see again. I forgave him many years ago, but not until I learned that forgiveness of others is the only choice that lives in love, and that love is the only choice I want to live by.
To love is to forgive. To forgive is to love. I don’t see exceptions, not where my heart is concerned. I don’t believe any of the justifications I produce for not forgiving. The only way something could be unforgivable is if I’m not loving enough to forgive it – if the darkness that lives within someone’s actions proves greater than the light that lives within my heart. I’m not willing to accept that. I won’t discount the strength of my love for anything, or anyone.
I used to think my parents’ murder was unforgivable. For many years, I didn’t even consider the possibility of forgiving their killer. It didn’t register as an option, not when he’d done something so profoundly terrible. When I thought about him, which wasn’t that often, I hated him, and I was fine with that. He deserved it, I thought. But it felt awful to rest in a state of hatred and rage. It hurt. I grew to understand that to feel more at peace with myself, I would need to find a greater sense of peace with him. Without knowing how I’d find my way there, I eventually considered the possibility of forgiveness. What did I have to lose?
“How do you forgive?” People ask me that question a lot. Some have struggled to forgive ex-spouses who treated them horribly while others refused to forgive friends who betrayed them. Abusive bosses, backstabbing colleagues, selfish parents, thoughtless children, corrupt politicians, greedy executives, bigoted neighbours – all have provoked in us the need, and inability, to forgive. Is there someone in your life right now you have yet to forgive? Or someone from your past you refuse to forgive? Maybe you don’t think they deserve it. Maybe you want to forgive them, but don’t know how. Maybe you’ve tried and failed.
I wish I had an answer that guaranteed success, but I’m not sure a definitive path to forgiveness exists, beyond a clear commitment to it. We have to want to give it in order to find it. If we don’t, we’ll never really start searching. There are loads of articles, books and videos that promise to guide us to forgiveness and that, no doubt, offer some valuable tools to help us along the way. Still, all the best forgiveness recommendations in the world won’t make a bit of difference if we stay committed to the belief that something is unforgivable. We won’t climb a mountain we have determined to be unclimbable. Once we shift that belief, and truly want to forgive someone for what he’s done, even if that’s solely for our peace of mind, our desire alone will likely lead us there. My desire has.
Forgiveness takes dedication and awareness, and it takes work.
Excerpted from Big Love: The Power of Living with a Wide-Open Heart. Copyright ©2017 by Scott Stabile. Printed with permission from New World Library, www.newworldlibrary.com