A Lesson in Forgiveness

One of the first things I ever learned about in my family was how not to forgive. My mother was a seething cauldron of remembered slights reaching like rubbery tentacles into the far past, to school girls in faded photographs. On some level, I learned my lessons well. I did not know the meaning of forgiveness anymore than I understood true charity. Charity was a place my toys would go if I left them out one more time. My family was of course, not Christian, so the lessons of Christ meant nothing in our household. They only lived in a blue New Testament on a dusty bookshelf. Eventually, my mother’s inability to forgive extended to me, and has remained these years past. She saw every slight, every teenage angst as a slap in her face, an offense to be remembered. I am sure if you asked her now she could recite, without hesitation, every sin of my youth back to my infancy. It took me years to face the emptiness of her eventual rejection, although somehow, I had always known it would happen. So, it was neither her nor my father that taught me forgiveness. Learning to forgive them, and even to forgive in general was a personal sojourn into the fires of the past. Although I could explain to you what forgiveness was, give the meaning, even become a fairly reliable thesaurus of related meanings, the practice of forgiveness was foreign for me. It was like being asked to run an obstacle course out of shape, and not even being told the route or the direction I was supposed to take. But, I had done my own evils, and I learned the greatest lesson in forgiveness long after the deeds had been done by the person I had committed the greatest offenses against.

Bonnie was old when I met her, tiny and stooped as she puttered around her iris garden accompanied by one or more of her beloved cats. When our friendship blossomed, and when I became a fixture in her house, I do not remember. It appeared like a flower in her garden, and grew steadily, steeped in the rich soil of friendship. I also don’t remember when I first began to steal from her, or why. I imagine that it started small with coins and the like, but eventually it snowballed into large bills. Sometimes, would bring a dollar, and replace the dollar with a ten from her purse. Eventually, she began to realize what I was doing, but was somehow powerless to stop me. Oddly, she never sent me away. Never refused my pitiful knocks at the door. I would always deny it, of course. A huge part of me wished fervently that I was not doing this thing. I only stole money. I had tried to shoplift, and felt like a thousand police cars were following my bus home, so I never did it again…but I continued to steal from people. If I had an opportunity, I did it. A thousand people chased me in my ever-present nightmares, and guilt throbbed in my soul, but I could not resist the adrenaline high I got from stealing. My gains I spent frivolously, quickly. The money did not matter to me as much as the hunt. Lest you think I was a poor, underprivileged child in some shadowy ghetto, let me correct you. I grew up in one of the wealthiest areas in California, and although my parents were not rich by any means, they were not poor.

Things took a turn after I accepted the Lord Jesus as my Savior. I did it to please my church, and to look good in front of my friends, (or those I wanted to be my friends), but thankfully, God took me seriously. I simply began to get caught. My parents basically abandoned me to the juvenile system, not seeming to be aware that the family dynamics I lived under helped create the monster they despised. Except for the stealing, I was at the core, basically a good kid desperate for attention. Bonnie did not press charges, but she did send me a letter of disappointment and sadness. And she remained in my life, not excusing me for my disgusting behavior but reminding me I could do better. Even though she has been gone from the earth all these years, I still have her letters somewhere, and they are still hard to read. When I was older, I returned to her home. I stood in her gravel driveway, among the sleeping iris waiting for their spring celebration, weeping. When I got to her door, I asked her if she remembered me. “Ah, yes…you are Blyth. The little girl who used to steal from me.” I wept harder as I told her I had come to apologize. Again, her door was opened to me. It never closed again. She even refused to allow me to pay her back beyond the small check I thrust at her. I loved her furiously, with abandon. When the strokes began to take her mind and memories, I still remained, not feeling like I deserved her attentions. I raged at inept caretakers who did not know her value. I sighed with relief when an aide was found that saw her true treasures even through the dimming of her memories. On what would be her last birthday, I came down from college to be with her. There are many happy photos of that event, and the final picture of us together…she holding me with an angelic smile on her face. By that time, she had only fleeting memories of anything, even the moment before. But what was most precious to me was not caught on film, and could not be caught. I sat with her on her itchy couch looking over aged photographs where her face was not lined, and her back not stooped surrounded by a birthday celebration she could not quite comprehend. Every so often, she would point to some stranger in the ochre-colored pictures, and ask if it was me. Finally, I said, “Bonnie, do you know who I am?”

I took a risk there, knowing she could probably remember the skinny youth that stole in her windows, and left with her money. I am not sure I even expected an answer at all, except that her eyes seemed to uncloud like a camera focusing, and she was looking, really looking at me.

“Of course I know. You are Blyth,” she told me bluntly.

I waited for the remembrances of my youthful evils. I stared at her, and she gazed serenely back. But then her eyes clouded over again, lost to the present. She picked out a picture of a young girl standing by an ancient automobile of some type, and asked, “Is this you?”

No word, no accusation, no remembrance of the torment I had been to her, just a final birthday gift that she gave me without reserve. She died a few months later after she had been moved to a care home. We all knew it would happen, but there had been no other way. Even as I later moved about in her silent house, selecting mementos that I could take to remember her, I remembered her greatest gift. She had not remembered a thief, a liar, a cheat, a betrayer. The greatest gift she had ever given me was not some item from her china cabinet…it was this incredible lesson in forgiveness….one I did not deserve, one I only hoped for. In that, I began to understand where the obstacles lay in the course, and how long it would take to reach the finish. A few simple, magic words taught me this: “Of course. You are Blyth.” I learned that even a lying, thieving, conniving little child could be redeemed, and allowed to bloom. Bonnie was one of the rocks in the tempest of my childhood, and by her forgiveness I learned a greater lesson, a lesson from God, Himself. If an old lady, muddled of mind and soul could forgive me, so could God, and so could I. I saw Bonnie as an illustration in which I caught a glimpse of God, and His lessons. My deeds had not been excused, but I had been restored. What I had once done did not create my future. Bonnie’s extension of forgiveness had changed my life, allowed me to learn how to forgive myself, and taught me the power of forgiving others. I think God’s forgiveness is like Bonnie’s. We can do evil against Him over and over again, but He still keeps the door open. He even allows us in His Throneroom, as we swear up and down that we did not do what we know we did. He waits for us to come to Him to for forgiveness at His Door whether we are weeping in sadness, or electrified in our shame. And when all is said and done, He remembers our name.

That is the lesson I learned from Bonnie.