The End of Forgiveness
When I was 16 years old, I participated in a medical study on a trace element in the blood called selenium. They told a group of us gathered in the Budapest hospital’s wide conference room that we had iron (vas) in our blood as well as zinc (cink), copper (réz), and a few other metals in small amounts. The head doctor was a short, angry-looking woman who gripped the back of a worn blue chair and looked at no one in the room when she was speaking. She kept talking about how we shouldn’t quit the study, because then the data would be useless. “Nagyon fontos, hogy ne hagyjátok abba. It’s very important that you don’t quit,” she said. “Muszály végig csinálni. You have to keep going.”
We were asked to do blood draws one at a time. Before we left, one of the nurses handed each of us two large plastic jars. The jars were about 3 gallons in size with a black screw-on top. The sides were transparent.
The study would examine how much selenium our bodies would absorb in a month, so we we needed to measure anything that went in or came out. Over the next 30 days we were to put a “copy” of anything we ate or drank into one of the jars. The other jar was to save all of our urine and feces.
“If the jar starts to get full, your parents can call us and we’ll give you a second jar,” the doctor said, “but it’s important that you don’t quit the study.” She punctuated everything she said with that phrase, almost pleading with us.
“Please don’t quit.”
For what it’s worth, I did make it to the end. The strangest thing about participating in that medical study some 25 years ago, was the doctor’s assumption of my autonomy. Even at 16, it did not even occur to me that I had any say in whether I’d even be there at all.
My 16th birthday was near the beginning of the study. I posed at some point that day for a photo while standing next to my mother, whom I had finally outgrown. In the picture, I have a small toy car resting in the open palm of my hand. “This way you can say your parents bought you a Porsche 911 for your 16th,” they told me. After I put a piece of cake on my plate, I cut another square about the same size, opened a jar on the counter, and dumped the second piece of cake into it.
That was the summer my mother was getting better. Or at least we were fighting less. It could be because I was finally strong enough to pull her hands off my throat or to stable myself when she tried to push me into the kitchen cabinets. I remember catching her by the wrist once when she took a swing at my face. I closed my hand around her arm and the tip of my middle finger touched my thumb on the other side. A few days after my birthday she tried to beat me with a soup ladle. I remember laughing at her while she she landed blows on my back. Less than a year later, I’d leave Budapest and the rest of my family behind. I spent my junior year of high school sleeping on an old couch in the basement of a Nebraska ranch house.
I don’t talk about those years very often. Especially the ones at the end. I make excuses on behalf of other people because I like films that end with redemption, and I keep thinking I can live my way into one. It’s not her fault. I think money was tough. There were other things. Depression wasn’t a word we used much in those days. For her part, my mother doesn’t remember laying a hand on me and insists that my memories are the work of a fiction writer.
I think a lot about the things that happened in the house and the things that, all these years later, cannot happen in mine. This, perhaps, is the lesson you learn from having been signed up to shit in a jar for the summer: I can choose to make things better.
I am trying.
On Saturday mornings, I build spaceships and dump trucks and race cars out of Legos while the youngest climbs on my back and shoulders. That’s how he helps. Sometimes the vehicles have wings and sometimes they have teeth and sometimes they have swords and treasure chests. They usually have at least three wheels. The drivers always need a helmet. I insist.
We listen to music while we build. Lately he has been asking for “the popsicle song,” which is what he calls Johnny Nash’s 1972 hit, “I can see clearly now.” I put down the bones of what may or may not be something resembling a helicopter and fish my phone out of my pocket. Once I press play, I make sure and sing the word “popsicles” just loud enough.
I can see clearly now the rain is gone.
I can see all popsicles in my way.
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.
It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.
The song makes more sense this way. It’s easy to rejoice over a sudden vision of endless popsicles. It is objectively better to sit outside in the bright sunshiny day with a frozen treat than with the full visibility of impediments.
Popsicles > Obstacles.
It’s not even close.
I caught him singing it on his own while idly breaking apart some crude Lego spaceship his brother had made. “I can see all popsicles in my way.” He whispered the lyrics over and over while he pulled pieces apart and put them back together. It’s always this, the itsy-bitsy-spider, or the refrain of The National’s “Light Years.” Sometimes it’s a combination of two or more of them. We’ve been listening to Johnny Nash all week. The more I sit with the actual lyric, the less I understand it. It is some cruel bit of irony that the same week we rediscovered his music, Johnny Nash made the news cycle, passing away at age 80. Natural causes, the article said.
The eight year old discovers his spaceship in pieces. He was saving it so he could add engines to the back of it later. I didn’t know. I can build it again, only better, can’t I? I can figure out a way to build the engines for him, but how would that ruin it? We end up in a lot of tearful discussions about forgiveness in this house. It comes with the territory of having two boys who are five years apart. Today it’s the spaceship. Tomorrow it will be something else. We do our best to never treat forgiveness like something that can be arrived at once the other person forgets. It is not inevitable. There is work involved. We are not landscapes with scars that disappear with enough time and water and wind.
It’s in the nature of anyone raised in fundamentalist Christianity both to wildly misunderstand forgiveness and to look for a moral in every story. The lesson learned in the summer of the shit jar is not about medicine or agency or control.
A week after we finished the study, my brother and I found a dead body on a bus stop bench. It was early in the morning, and the sun was throwing thin slivers of light between the tall apartment buildings in Budafok. I don’t remember where we were going, or headed home from. The body reeked of booze, and there was a large dark area on his brown pants from where he had pissed himself. It wasn’t immediately clear that the man was dead, but we didn’t dare get close. We stared at his chest to see if it was rising or falling.
A woman came into the bus stop and pushed us out of the way. She slapped the man’s cheeks gently a few times and then started to shout, “Hello? Hello?” After she shouted at him once or twice she would stand up straight and look around, but the man was alone.
She lifted the drunk’s wrist and checked for a pulse. She didn’t say anything. She just frowned and gently lowered his wrist. The dead drunk’s face was still flushed and pink.
The woman called an ambulance from a payphone just next to the stop. We waited together for awhile, but when the bus arrived before the ambulance, my brother and I climbed on. As the 114’s diesel engine groaned and we pulled away from the stop, I looked out the bus window, surprised to see the woman still standing on the sidewalk, under the bus stop’s small rain cover, next to the occupied bench. She was waiting with him, guarding the body.
I was thinking of that woman in the bus stop and the summer of the shit jar when Joe Biden was making his victory speech after enough of the votes had been counted in Pennsylvania and Nevada and Georgia. He talked so much about forgiveness without ever using the word itself. “Let’s give each other a chance,” he said. “To see each other again. To listen to each other again.”
At least one of Biden’s three speech writers used to work for Obama. You don’t have to listen too closely to hear it. It’s a thing they both do with rhythm and lists. Things always come in threes, like “a nation united, a nation strengthened, a nation healed.” A list of two sets up the outer extremes. A list of three creates a space. No matter how you feel about the politics, these guys are excellent speech writers.
The pundits ate it up. All night they kept using the word “healing.” I don’t know why I was watching the news. I shouldn’t have been. After dinner I walked in and out of the room while the boys were chasing each other in circles through the house and I finally shouted something like “We don’t forgive bigotry!” at the television. Even as I said it, I didn’t know what it was I meant by that. The boys didn’t even slow down.
I started to write the story of the summer of the shit jar later that night, thinking that I’d have something smart to say. I wanted to end it with a punch line that started with the phrase “when the shit starts to pile up,” but I didn’t know where to take it from there.
The storm of writing never plays out how I want it to. The lines are never clean. Both writing and parenting are a constant negotiation between my hope and a flawed execution. I set sail with the best of intentions and end up shipwrecked a few minutes later. When one of the boys steals legos from his brother’s hands, I give him a clear and clean list of three things:
1. Say what you did.
2. Say it was wrong.
3. Say you won’t do it again.
I tell the three-year old exactly what to say and he repeats it back in the form of an incoherent grumble. The eight-year old, on the other hand, descends into blame and scapegoating, but what can you expect from a rule you ad libbed with an unearned confidence all those years ago. It never plays out cleanly, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. Muszály végig csinálni. You have to keep going.
Today the three year old has drawn monster trucks all over his brother’s homework. His brother usually doesn’t mind since I showed him how to add a few lines to the drawings and make them into googley-eyed monsters. But this time it was the math homework. I push through the apology with the three year old, stumbling at each step. I have to wrap my arms around him and squeeze him against my chest because our talk is keeping him from drawing more monster trucks. By the time we make it to the third item on the list, his brother is long gone, trying to save his homework with an eraser.
We never force the forgiveness itself. Kindness remains the only compass, and we have learned that unqualified forgiveness is not always the kindest conclusion. In the face of an insincere or incomplete apology, and in the absence of contrition, it is even less so. Sometimes forgiveness is a license to continue to do harm, and it is fundamentally unkind to offer it.
We apologize as often as we need to, but we forgive only when it makes sense.
The three year old picks his pencil back up and starts drawing monster trucks again, this time all over the grocery list. He stops for a second and looks up at me. It’s possible, for a lingering moment, that he has learned his lesson. He looks back down and draws another set of wheels. We’ll have to talk about this soon, but the trucks are looking better and better with practice. He puts a square on top of one and scribbles around it. “It’s a siren,” he says. “This one is an ambulance.”
I remember again, as I have hundreds of times over the last 25 years, the woman who did not get onto the bus. I remember her staying with the body so that this man wouldn’t have to be alone. How bright and brilliant a small kindness can be. More light. More kindness. I can see clearly now.
I can see all popsicles in my way.