How to Tell A Forgiveness Story

This is a story about forgiveness. How we find it. How we let it find us. How we tell its story.

I wake up most days around four thirty in the morning. No alarm, just my natural body clock. And a 58-year old bladder.

My room is still dark. The busy road in front of my house is quiet. There aren’t many people out and about at that hour in Portland, Maine. Even the seagulls are untroubled, their high-pitched shrieks silenced by sleep.

I rest there in a king-sized bed. Arrow, my little French bulldog, snores and is pressed close and warm to the side of my leg. I lean back against a couple of pillows, and let my mind wander. Against all temptation I try not to art direct; better to let whatever is brewing come up to the surface of its own volition.

Childhood scenes, teen years, college, beyond. Stuff and stories from two, three, four or even five decades ago. Fragments of critical moments in my life. Going over it again and again and again, and trying to create some sort of narrative that allows me to say, “Oh, yes! Now I get it. That happened because this didn’t.” Or, “I’m like this now because that happened then.”

Resolving is an infinite process, I’ve recently discovered. It’s like a game invented by Lewis Carroll — a story continuously unspooling and unfolding. The reward is that you get to learn more through the unspooling; the bummer is that you’re never actually finished.

Most mornings I tread familiar turf. Stories and stuff I’ve plumbed many times. Nothing new but interesting nonetheless. Sometimes, however, I find something novel. Like an archeologist, I discover a shard, or maybe a bruise or a crack I hadn’t remembered or known about, and I work through it with deliberateness and commitment.

Digging like this is consciously moving toward forgiveness.

Cheryl Strayed, fave writer, says this about forgiveness. It’s the smartest, truest thing about it that I’ve read:

“Forgiveness means you’ve found a way forward that acknowledges harm done and hurt caused without letting either your anger or your pain rule your life or define your relationship with the one who did you wrong.”

Although I try not to choreograph, there are one or two stories I actively avoid. Just too damned painful, and I’ve never been able to get near to forgiving.

Just one or two.

Just one.

It is this.

This is the worst hurt of my life.

This is how you tell a forgiveness story.

The story begins in my father’s old blue Plymouth. We called that car the Poseidon Adventure because it was enormous and it looked like a shipwreck.

It is spring of 1990. I am visiting my parents for the weekend. On the Sunday, my father drives me to the train station in Hartford. I am returning to NYC and to my job at The New York Times. I have very recently been accepted to an MFA program for creative writing at the University of Minnesota. I have decided to pursue my passion. I have spoken of this with excitement all weekend. But neither my father nor my mother has said much. So, I broach the subject with my father, always a cheerleader for my professional plans.

“You’re awfully quiet about this, Dad,” I say. “What do you think?”

Here it comes. Here’s where you need to pay attention.

“I’ll tell you what I think,” he says after a moment, which I have now concluded is when he committed to tough love as he probably saw it.

“What I think is that this is the stupidest plan I’ve ever heard. You’re grasping at straws.

“And you’re not going to like what I’m about to say next,” he adds.

He is right.

“Your problem is that you’re looking for something. You think being a writer is going to solve what’s wrong. But it isn’t. Because the problem isn’t what you do for a living. The problem is…” and here I am almost certain he paused for moment, but my memory could be playing tricks on me.

“…that you are too fat to be attractive. So you’re not meeting any men. And you’re never going to get married. This is all about what to do if you never get married.”

In the memory, I am concentrating on not crying.

In real life, nearly 30 years later, I am concentrating on continuing to breathe and on trying to imagine what makes someone say this to someone they love. What makes someone — my father — think this is okay.

A new detail I remember as I continue to unspool this story:

“If you were to get married, you wouldn’t have time for this writing bullshit. You’d have a family. Like other people.”

I do not respond. I can’t.

Looking back, I remember that we reached the train station and I grabbed my bag and, somehow, I got away from the car and into the Amtrak waiting room. I don’t remember any other details of how the conversation ended. I remember being on the train.

I remember my father calling me later that day. My mother calling, actually. She said, Your father can be a real ass. Then she put him on the phone.

I remember that my father apologized. He said he felt terrible. I remember I said it was okay. I remember knowing it was not.

I never went to the University of Minnesota. I never pursued an MFA. And, no coincidence here, I stopped all creative writing for a long, long time after that. Go figure.

Harm done and hurt caused.

That brings me to how to tell a forgiveness story.

You tell the person you forgive them. You tell them why. You set the record straight. And then you move on. If they’re alive when all of this is happening, all the better. But it is not a game-ender if they’re not. Forgiveness is ultimately about you. It is for you.

The other day, I woke up and found myself remembering that story — the car, the route from my parents’ house to the train station in Hartford — and replaying it. Rewinding, unfolding.

I remembered it all. I talked it out, saying the words and remembering bits and pieces aloud.

I said, “Dad, I have forgiven you. I haven’t forgotten what you said, but I have managed to forgive it. Maybe you wanna know why. It’s because I loved you more than anyone else in the world and I won’t give that up.

“But I also want you to know that you were wrong. Dead wrong.

“You were wrong about everything except this: I never married. That part you got right. But it wasn’t because I’m a size 12 or a size 2 or a size 56. It’s because I never believed in myself. I always came up short, no matter what I achieved. I never believed anyone would want me.

“For the record, I no longer believe that. It has taken every bit of strength I have to get to this point. I am proud of myself. I believe you would be proud, too. Proud, too, that I have guts. I stand for something and I’m not afraid.

“I also now understand this was because of your limitations, not mine.

“You hurt me — more than anyone has ever hurt me before. Or since . And, the truth is, I love you. That, I now know, is what forgiveness is about. Acknowledging the hurt and loving in spite of it. Not letting the hurt define who I am. Or, just as true, who you are to me.”

In the grey of a Maine morning , forgiveness found me.

It has made me a better writer.

It has made me an honest writer.

The secret to telling a forgiveness story? Be ready to let forgiveness find you. And be willing to forgive yourself.

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