Forgiveness: A Lesson in Three Parts

Published September 1, 2008

In Character

I’m standing alone on a cold pebble beach in the silence of a gathering twilight, and across the vast, mirror surface of the sea, beyond the horizon, the sky blazes in gold. Out of this light, and silhouetted against it, emerges a small boat eased through the water by a young man with an oar. I know this man. It’s my son Dan.

He steps onto the beach. Dan is in his late twenties, and his round, bright eyes are alive with humor as he holds out his hand, the strong, muscled hand of an athlete, to help his old man into the boat. “Let’s go, Dad,” he smiles, and we both climb in and start across the waters to an unseen shore.

Or anyway, that’s what probably happens, because I always wake up before we get into the boat. The dream first came to me the night I learned, conclusively, that Dan had Down syndrome. Somewhere in the blueprint of his chromosomes is a flaw as basic as it is delicate. Dan will always be mentally disabled — in the unspoken judgment of the world, damaged. He will never be entirely whole. His eyes will never be round, and he’ll never be an athlete, at least not like his siblings.

Down syndrome children are, using the awkward but brutally honest language of an earlier era, “retarded.” They have limited intellect and poor muscle tone. Their speech is clumsy. They wear the unfinished look of Michelangelo’s “Captives,” those stone carvings that never quite escaped the bonds of the sculptor’s imagination to shine with their intended beauty. And that’s how I think of Dan sometimes, when my anger at God is at its blackest: Here is a child whom God forgot to finish and who now lives imprisoned in the raw marble of God’s neglect. If God is such a genius, how does He explain His mistakes?

I know dreams like mine are a common sign of subconscious anxiety, which is probably why I haven’t had one in many years. As Dan approaches eight­een, so much of who he is and what he needs and what he does has become routine. My wife and I still worry about his future, especially the hurt he will encounter from some outsiders as he moves into adulthood, and most especially his safety after we’re gone. But the white-knuckle panic and the sense of failure — it’s curious how these things gradually fade.

As the years have passed, what’s striking about Dan is not how different he is from the rest of us, but how similar. Yes, he fits all the standard Down syndrome clichés employed to smooth the serrated edges of a birth defect: He has a sweet temper and a gentle smile; he loves simply and generously and radiates happiness; his heart will rarely be troubled by the deeper mysteries of which he himself is a sign. But he is also demanding, stubborn, and sexually inquisitive, with a built-in ability to sense and exploit the sympathy of other people. Dan may learn some things more slowly than other teens, but his self-interest is unimpaired and well oiled. In short, Dan is a person uncomfortably like the rest of us. He merely wears his imperfections on the outside, where they remind us unforgivably of our own.

Unforgivably is the right word. You see, that’s the “problem” with Dan, and all the rest of the flawed and disabled: They are too obvious. They embarrass us. They advertise our powerlessness, and worse, they do it innocently, which even robs us of the right to resent them. And so we look away from them on the bus; we avoid their presence; we hope that what they have isn’t catching. I know, because before Dan came along, I did this myself. Even now, I get the hot, hopeless taste of impatience in my mouth when Dan decides to hit on an attractive young blonde — actually, any appealing female will do — by bellowing a song from /i]Barney and Friends off-key in public. As individuals go, so goes the culture: We flee the crippled and substandard behind a smokescreen of new programs, reformed vocabulary, and ersatz sympathy, while politely arranging their prevention, or their annihilation, with Orwellian understatements like genetic counseling and pregnancy termination. More than 80 percent of children with Down syndrome are now killed in the womb. For all our enlightened and self-congratulatory “humanity,” very few of us really forgive imperfection, and even fewer are willing to ask ourselves why.

I don’t have my dream anymore, but I think about it often in my waking hours. Dan healed; Dan perfected: What would that even mean? That I long for a son other than the one I already have? Better three Dans, five Dans, a hundred Dans, than one Dan fixed according to my brutal and unforgiving specs. What I’ve come to believe is this: The thirst for perfection in our children, in our friends, and in the strangers we encounter in the street is really a thirst for perfection — no, a hatred of the imperfection — within our incomplete selves. We are not, it turns out to the dismay of our overheated vanities, little gods. And the irony of the real God’s design — yes, I believe in Him, even when I’m angry at Him — is that only our flaws, our imperfections, can drive the economy of love. It’s what makes us human. We need one another.

Maybe there will come a day when Dan and I do get into the boat and do reach that far shore. I have given up worrying about if, or when. But in all his limitations and in all his possibilities, I have learned that my son is a treasure, not a mistake. He cannot be a mistake. God does not make mistakes.


Across the gulf of time and memory, they sit there in a humid, nearly forgotten backyard, she in her 1958 housedress, he in a Hawaiian short-sleeved shirt. Ed’s hair is thinning; Claire is wearing false pearls. Both are smiling, their hands entwined, and a stranger might easily miss the weariness of so much experience around their eyes. But I am not a stranger; at least, not anymore.

A time comes for every mother and father when life’s jury, composed of their children, returns a judgment. My parents had been deceased for more than two decades. Yet here they were, vividly, patiently, waiting among the photographic debris of the past for my verdict, as I rummaged through a drawer on a Saturday morning. And as naturally as I speak them to my own children, out came the words: I love you.

My mother came from a sprawling Irish Catholic clan. My father, a German Lutheran, was an only child. The families, both poor, lived across an ethnic DMZ that ran down the middle of a New York City street. The two sets of parents didn’t like each other and didn’t mix well. In fact, they rarely spoke at all. But Ed eventually became buddies with Claire’s older brother, and she married him after Ed converted, forever poisoning the in-law well.

Neither had an education. My mother, a voracious reader, had been forced to pass up a college scholarship to help support her nine siblings. But my father had a gift with tools and a ferocious capacity for work, so, throughout the Great Depression, he kept his job as a mechanic, working eighteen-hour shifts, every day, for more than five years. I’ve seen pictures of them together from these years: young lovers in modest, funny bathing suits on the sand at Coney Island, the future ahead of them, a universe of hope and self-confidence alive in their eyes.

My sister Therese arrived, and then Barbara. Ed began to move up in his trucking company, and then to travel and entertain — and also to drink. Looking back through the eyes of my older sisters, the wounds began to accumulate right here. The alcohol problems and family arguments got steadily worse. My sisters don’t talk much about the 1940s. And yet, by the time I was born in 1948, their life together had somehow changed again. I grew up in a home where my father rarely drank or traveled, where past mistakes lived on only in the vague hurt that sometimes clung to my mother’s voice, or in the quick, sharp storms that would blow up between them over people or situations I didn’t understand.

During my college years, the bourgeois regularity of their life together, their simpleminded religious faith, their material ambitions and seeming ignorance of ideas — these sins drove me to embarrassment and despair. Never mind that my dorm-room social consciousness depended on their sweat and sacrifice: They were insufferably, unforgivably middle-class. And yet now, gazing back from the distant peaks of my late fifties, what I remember most about them is the effort they made at loving. They always loved my sisters and me better than we — no, make that I — loved them.

In my early twenties, sometime after my mother first fell ill with the cancer that would eventually kill her, I received a call from my sister Barbara, and as siblings often do in a family crisis, we reminisced about childhood. In the course of remembering, she recalled how much trouble Claire had gone through because of a woman named Ruth before I was born. “Who is Ruth?” I asked. After a long and curious silence, she said, “I thought you knew.”

Over the years I’ve thought many times of my father’s infidelity to my mother and weighed it carefully against the loyalty I experienced from him in my own life; against the tenderness he showed to my sisters, against his devotion to my mother in the years before her death, and against the broken heart that dragged this big, inarticulate bear of a man down into tears when she died.

I learned two things from this. Here’s the first thing: People can repent. People can forgive. And love is far more complicated and difficult than anyone ever imagines when the journey of a marriage begins — and yet, also possible and somehow even more moving when it rises again after a fall. Claire endured humiliation and disloyalty from her husband because she loved him. She forgave him, and then she begged, prayed, and finally demanded him into changing. And, somehow, he loved her enough to want to become different and then to actually do it, and also to do something far more lacerating to our human vanity: He accepted her forgiveness. Nothing is more scalding to human pride than accepting another’s forgiveness while knowing we have no right to it in justice.

Here’s the second thing I learned: In his twenties, a young man feels noble for “forgiving” his parents. Only later do you discover that it’s you who needs the forgiveness.

On the mantle in my living room stands a photo of my wife, Suann, and me. We’re on vacation. I have my arm around her, and we’re smiling. Our marriage has taken a very different course from the one my parents charted: different strengths, different fault lines, different mistakes and joys. But when it comes our turn to be excavated from the dusty drawer of our children’s memory, I hope God in His mercy will let us be remembered with a fraction of the same tenderness I have for my parents, but never had the common sense to express. You see, Claire and Ed did the one most difficult, implausible, and redeeming thing in the world: They loved well.

A few months ago, Suann taped a cartoon to the inside of our medicine cabinet. In the drawing, a man and woman, frozen at different heights in mid-air, are bouncing off a huge trampoline in the shape of a heart. It doesn’t have a caption. It doesn’t need one.

Justice is a devious word, and I’ve come to use it warily as an adult because, like sculptor’s clay, it too easily molds itself to the shape of our resentments. What most of us so often mean by “justice” is punishment for the people who hurt us, and a general amnesty for ourselves. But anyone who has said the Lord’s Prayer unthinkingly and repeatedly over the years had better read the fine print: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. The words feel uncomfortably like a contract: to the degree and in the manner we forgive others, so we will be forgiven. That kind of justice, very few of us really want.

There’s a reason the stories of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, and the “good thief” who steals heaven on the cross speak so consolingly to the human heart. Each is about mercy, and like it or not, most of us finally do know ourselves: We understand, or at least dimly suspect, that only by releasing others from their debts to us can we be released from our debts to others. There is no other road to peace or justice. And because of this, maybe the most urgent human virtue is not justice at all, or even mercy, but humility. Humility is the beginning of sanity, the first step in learning to forgive and to seek forgiveness. Only when we begin to see ourselves as we really are, with all the warts and smallness and without the alibis, can we begin to see others, and their fears and sufferings, their hopes and personal anarchies, for the first time. And then we have a chance to become human.

Many years ago, during the summers between college terms, I worked for my father and his trucking firm, filing GMC engine parts — thousands of them. The weeks had a grease-coated, mind-deadening regularity broken up only by pay day, donut breaks, and an occasional chat with my brother-in-law Tom, who also worked for my dad, but in the vastly more glamorous sales office.

Then one July morning, like sunlight entering a cellar, Phyllis joined the secretarial pool. She was in her early thirties, divorced, and a single mom, with a slight limp from a car accident in her teens. But she had blazing red hair, an appealing shape, and — more important — a personality that illuminated the parts department. We immediately became friends, and the relationship worked out for both of us: I got to sweeten a few minutes of every workday in conversation with an attractive and interested older woman, and she — after explaining her difficult childcare predicament — got me to clock her out for lunch twenty minutes late a couple of times a week so she could drive home and check on her son.

Turned out, though, that Phyllis was actually caring for my brother-in-law Tom at a local motel, and in the final months before my sister’s marriage cratered — with my unwitting help — Phyllis demonstrated a variety of skills beyond taking dictation, including telephone harassment and stalking. These things happen.

I mention this story because, for anyone who pays attention as time rolls on, life’s little ironies can become life’s little tutors. Some years after Tom and Phyllis ran off together in the throes of passion, my father died. As his only son, I stood with my sisters next to my dad’s coffin on the morning of his funeral to receive the condolences of his friends and bus­iness colleagues. And who should show up but Phyllis and Tom, looking suitably touched and somber. It was an awkward moment: Dad lying there dead in a box, and my cuckolded sister standing right next to me. There’s no established etiquette for times like these. But then my sister did a most astonishing thing. She embraced them both and thanked them for coming. And they kissed her, and then me, and then Phyllis said Dad was a wonderful man, and Tom said Dad had always treated him kindly — and then they left.

I watched them go. How are we supposed to act when the implausible happens? I remember trying very hard to be offended — I felt like I owed that to my sister or my dad or somebody — but the well of anger was bone dry. And anyway, if my sister forgave them, who was I to resent them? In fact, what I felt more than anything else was, well, gratitude. They had taken the time and shown the courage to honor a good man. I had to give them that.

Phyllis later divorced Tom, and Tom got back together with my sister, who also later divorced him, again. Like I said, these things happen. We are a tangle of hurts and longings that only makes sense, and can only be unraveled, through the discipline of mercy. The tired old adage “to err is human, to forgive is divine” is very nearly true. I would only add, from the far shore of experience, that we’re never really human, in the sense God created us to be, until we learn to forgive.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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