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The magic of forgiveness

Kate Barrett | Wednesday, March 16, 2005

I had one of those “don’t put it off till tomorrow” moments last week. My father called last Thursday and told me that my grandmother (his mother) would probably not live much longer. “She won’t recognize you or even know you’re there,” he told me, “but if you want to come for yourself, you should.”

I went the next day, on Friday, and she died on Saturday, at 92. My dad was right; she didn’t recognize me, and I doubt she knew I was there, even though she did blink a little at one point when I prayed a Hail Mary right in her ear. I did go for myself, and it’s a day I won’t forget, in part because I sat with my grandmother on the day before she died, but mostly because I got to sit there with my dad.

My grandmother, I should note, was a complex and difficult woman. We never seemed to please her quite enough, though I think that may have been the only way she knew how to love us – believing us to have the potential for just a bit more than what we were showing her. As it turned out, her own life never seemed to please her quite well enough either, even if to others it would appear she and my grandfather had achieved every material success. After my grandfather’s death, she became more and more adept at re-inventing her own life story, adding more imagined money, travel and prestige every time she told a new audience her constantly-improving autobiography.

My mom and dad had cared for her for the last 15 years, since my grandfather’s death, guiding her from a relatively independent life through the gradual loss of her abilities and her freedom into the world of the nursing home. She did not make these changes gracefully or willingly, and my dad, an only child, bore the brunt of her ongoing anger, frustration and loneliness.

Over the course of about three quiet hours, I sat with my dad last Friday in her room. If it’s true that we learn how to take care of our own ailing parents by watching the way they took care of theirs, then I have learned how to be a hero from my dad. He made the three-hour round trip to see her, first once a week, and in more recent years and months two or three times a week or more, even though he knew that he might be greeted by a torrent of complaints, frosty silence or a list of imagined affronts. As she grew more frail, she finally seemed to recognize a love and need for my father and mother that she hadn’t been able to admit before. My dad, too, found healing and reconciliation in his ongoing pilgrimages, and especially, I think, in his prayer and belief that God’s grace worked through what must have seemed at times too heavy a burden.

My grandmother grew up during a time in our Church when faith was driven in part by fear – fear of somehow not fulfilling the obligations a demanding and punitive God seemed to have imposed. She carried that understanding of her faith into adulthood. My dad and I wondered together as we sat whether she was somehow afraid to die. Did she worry that she hadn’t quite gotten it right somehow? That God waited for her with a list of the shortcomings she had accumulated and hadn’t yet “erased” with her multitudes of daily Masses and rosaries?

God graced my dad with the gift of forgiveness in his journey through my grandmother’s last 15 years, transforming his pain into compassion for her and into hope and prayers for her healing and peace. Sometimes – maybe even most times – we can’t forgive on our own, but only with God’s generous help. We find that help in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and in our own pilgrimages with those whom God has given us to love.

On Sunday we hear the Passion story for the first time this year. Jesus, while on the cross, forgives those who have abused him, mocked him and felt driven to kill him. He tells the “good thief” hanging beside him that, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” I believe that my grandmother has gone to be with Jesus in paradise, that God forgives much more readily than she knew and that God gave that gift of healing to my dad. We again approach Holy Week, our holiest week. Again we can gratefully approach the Lord who loves us, who forgives us, and who offers us the ability, with his grace, to forgive each other in his name.

Kate Barrett works for Campus Ministry. She can be contacted at barrett.28@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.