On Forgiveness, Grief, and the Book I Cannot Write

There’s a book (there’s always a book), that I cannot commit to paper. I haven’t scrawled a word of it on a notebook or a cereal box or a sheet of toilet paper or a bunch of wadded up receipts. And yet. It is written all the same. I know everything there is to know about this book: I know the shape of the narrative, the faces of its inhabitants, the dark, hidden places in the story. I know the texture of the language, the mournful cry of the wind through the trees, the rhythmic pulse of the trains that skirt past the scrubby bit of land at the stump of the dead-end street. I know the tragic inception of the story, how it winds around the hands and feet of my characters. How it pulls into tight, hard knots.

I know there is redemption too. And love. But the loss at the beginning – the grief. It stops my hands every time. And maybe it’s because I’m superstitious (do I hesitate to write about the loss of a child because I fear losing my own children? Do I hesitate to examine the role of grief in realistic situations because I’m afraid to do so without the distance of fantasy? I honestly don’t know. And I’m too scared to find out.)

This story is already written along the folds of my heart. I feel it on my skin, I hear it whisper in my ears in the moments before sleep and in the rush of waking up. It crowds my eyes while dreaming. But I have not written down.

I’ve refused to do it.

Because I’m afraid. And I left it at that.

But something happened this weekend that made me rethink it.

I went to church, and this woman spoke the congregation: https://i0.wp.com/www.visitationmonasteryminneapolis.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Mary-embracing-Oshea-300x200.jpgHer name is Mary Johnson and she started an organization called From Death To Life – a group that brings the families of murder victims with the families of murderers, into circles of forgiveness, repentance and love. That woman there – and believe me, you have never met anyone so full of love, so full of the spirit as that dear, dear lady – is embracing the young man who, many years ago, took the life of her only son.

I’m just gonna let that sink in for a moment.

Okay, you with me? Good. His name is Oshea Israel. He was sixteen when he shot Laramiun Lamont Byrd, Mary Johnson’s son. She said that in the aftermath of the murder, and then the trial, and then Israel’s imprisonment, she felt only rage, hatred and hurt. She wanted him to suffer. She wanted him caged. She said, “I didn’t realize that anger and hurt are a cancer in the soul. I didn’t realize that my rage was a prison worse than any prison that the boy who killed my boy could ever be thrown in. I was a prisoner. And I needed to be free.”

The path to forgiveness wasn’t an easy one, but one of the things that really got me in her story is that her path was incited by a poem – “Two Mothers”, by an anonymous poet, which she read by accident after opening to a random page in a book. It arrested her, pinned her heart in place. She decided she needed to meet the boy – now a man – who killed her son. She decided she needed to meet his mother. She decided that she needed to love them both – to forgive the son and to grieve with the mother – and by doing that she would be free. And maybe they would be free too.

After a TON of restorative justice work – with the family, with social workers, with church members and community members and with all sorts of folks who involve themselves in the tough and important work of restorative justice – they met. She asked him to come and work with her when he left prison to heal their community. She told him that he had an opportunity to do something good and brave and beautiful that would help to heal the world. He believed her.

She said: “I took him in my arms and hugged him. And I felt something deep in my body – starting at my feet and moving upwards through my belly and my chest and the top of my head. And I felt it burst forth and fly away. I felt my hurt and my anger and my rage leave my body. And just like that it was gone. And only love remained.”

I sat in the congregation. I shook. I wept. (Seriously, I made kind of an idiot of myself.) She said that the young man is now out of prison – has been for over a year. He lives next door to her and works with her. “I lost a son,” she said. “And God gave me a son. And he gave me his mother, my sister. And then we got to work.”

It was an amazing, thrilling and life-affirming story, and proves to me once again that love really is stronger than hate, and stronger than death, and stronger than revenge. Love has the capacity to do good, to change a community and a country and a life, while revenge and hate can do nothing except to perpetuate themselves. Love is tougher, braver and more resilient than revenge on its best day, and it’s our only hope for a better future.

She could have chosen hatred. She could have chosen rage.  She could have chosen revenge and animosity and isolation. But she would have changed nothing. Instead she loved, and that changes everything.

And she has inspired me to be brave. And she has inspired me to be hopeful and loving and vulnerable and alive.

And maybe I will write that book after all.

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8 thoughts on “On Forgiveness, Grief, and the Book I Cannot Write

  1. I read stories like this and I wonder: How? I mean, it makes sense, I can feel the lift in your words and hers. I think you’re right, that’s what bravery is! Beautiful post, whether you write your book or not. (I feel your superstition, and raise you. Catholic. Jewish. Yep.)

    • The more I talk to my Jewish friends about their upbringing, the more I realize that the Cat’licks and the Jews are cultural siblings. The guilt, the superstition, the overbearing and complicated (and wonderful, wonderful) families, the beautiful interweaving of tradition and story and ritual – until every action we do seems bound by the stories we told, the stories we tell, the stories that have yet to be written. So much the same.

      But yeah. Superstition. Holy smokes.

  2. Aw crap Kelly. I have to preach on the “love your enemies” text on Sunday. Am I really supposed to come up with something more complete than this? Can I just write an introduction and read your piece instead of writing my own?

    I am deeply tempted. 😉

    • Amy, I love you so very very much! And I was sitting in church by myself because the kids were in their sunday school groups and Ted had to work. And there I was, snerting and blubbering, thinking, “I really wish Amy was here right now!”

      Isn’t it funny how our lives hum harmonically?

    • The more I learn about restorative justice, the more I’m convinced that it’s the only answer to humanity’s future. I’ll wait to click on that link until after the kids leave for school, because I’m sure it will make me cry.

      Because I am a big fat crybaby.

    • I JUST READ THE NPR STORY! And I remember hearing it when it first aired. I can still hear Hector Black’s voice in my head – that anger and loss and hurt and letting go. Wow. I hadn’t thought about that for a long time.

  3. Wow, Kelly- now I know why you and Amy are such good friends, and I’m very happy she put us in touch. Your writing and your heart are equally beautiful. Thanks for sharing, and I look forward to connecting with you soon.

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