This essay first appeared in The Sun Magazine
What can I trust my mother to do? She will usually come when I need her. She will love my children as fiercely as I do, but in an older, less-complicated way. She will frequently enrage me. She will not always be honest with herself, or with me. But my mother can see things from far away, useful things like road signs for gasoline and food, for airports I need to find, for towns I think I have missed. And she can see things that frighten and surprise me, like betrayal before it comes, and what is happening in my heart when we are hundreds of miles apart. My vision is flawed. I am nearsighted and prefer to examine everything close up. I remember lying in the grass, observing the small world of ants and worms, closely watching a particular ant unable to lift a particular crumb. That was a long time ago, but I am still very good at noticing little things. I am still very, very good at finding mistakes.
I missed a speed-limit sign, and for two months I did a rather bad job of waiting to stand before a judge, obsessing about the choices I had made: I’d chosen to leave our family cottage in Wisconsin at five o’clock in the morning on Sunday, July 29. I’d chosen to limit my stops, hoping to arrive home early. I’d chosen, as I often do, to be in a hurry. I was not paying attention — which is a choice, too.
I took a highway that passed through a small town. When the highway became Main Street, I failed to notice the posted speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour and kept right on driving what my grandfather liked to call “a sporting sixty-two.” Why did I miss that sign? I know I was distracted by my children’s voices. I know I was talking on my cellphone. I think I was also, somehow, trying to listen to an interesting story on Minnesota Public Radio. Isn’t that the problem with not paying attention? Only after a police officer stopped me did I see that I had not been paying attention. I had been both stupid and lucky. Of course, I was glad that no one had gotten hurt. And I was sorry, but mostly for myself: Sorry that I was busy and tired. Sorry that I had gotten caught. Sorry that my children were in the car to see it, and that I’d made them feel afraid.
I received a ticket, which I paid, but a judge decided it wasn’t punishment enough. I got a letter in the mail ordering me to appear in court to argue why my driver’s license should not be suspended for up to a year and explaining that my crime was a six-point moving violation, comparable to a DUI. I was offended by this. What did I have in common with a drunk driver? I still didn’t get it. But I knew that I was in big trouble, and I wanted sympathy. While I waited for my trial, I told my story at least once to everyone who loves me best, trying to make each of them laugh, trying to pass small pieces of my worry into every willing palm.
Three days before my trial, I was in Florida for a wedding. My parents, sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins had all gathered at a beachside resort to celebrate my cousin Becky’s marriage. My own husband and son and daughter were at home, and I had not been gone long enough to miss them yet. I went for a walk on the beach, looking at the white sand and the clear sky. There wasn’t much room in my life for quiet, and an hour alone near the ocean was working on a lovely word to name the sea.
Then I saw my mother coming my way. My father was with her, and I gave them a brief wave. My mother raised her entire arm in response, and I immediately grew annoyed with her. How loud and obnoxious she is. Why must she wave with her whole arm that way? She is so needy. I’ve acknowledged her already. As we continued to walk toward each other, I saw that I’d been wrong: She was not waving her arm at all. Her right arm was raised, yes, but it was pointing toward the water. She wanted me to look at something. It was a moment before I saw them: dolphins. They were leaping from the water in pairs, closer to the shore than I would ever have guessed they might come. My six-year-old daughter had taught me a little about dolphins: that a pod of dolphins is a mix of relatives and friends, a family that creates itself.
I met my mother and father at the edge of the water. They were thrilled to have brought me the dolphins. We talked for a minute, then turned together to follow the dolphins down the shoreline. My parents seemed happy that I was walking with them. When was the last time we had done something like this? Had we ever done something like this?
I have spent so many years being furious and right. I have not always chosen to be with my family, and sometimes my parents have chosen something else besides me. But slowly the truth has come to me, and it is beginning to break my heart: my parents have been seeking me, have been trying to love me the best they can for a long time — and for me it has never been good enough.
I am reluctant to tell you about my day in court. (Might the judge somehow see this? Could he still find me in contempt?) I do not like remembering what it feels like for someone to wield great power over me, especially when that someone so enjoys their power. The judge was small and thin, and when I saw him, I knew at once he was an angry man. His desk was a plain table on a platform at the end of a narrow, paneled room. My memory is not a transcript, but it went something like this:
JUDGE: What happened here?
ME: I missed the sign.
JUDGE: How could you have missed that sign?
ME: I don’t know.
JUDGE: What were you thinking?
ME: I wasn’t thinking.
JUDGE: What were you doing?
ME: I was wrong. I made a mistake. I am sorry. It will never happen again.
JUDGE: Do you honestly expect me to believe that you just missed that sign?
ME: Yes. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t have a good reason.
JUDGE: How could you have missed the obvious indications that you were in a town — like houses, businesses, sidewalks?
ME: I really don’t know. I was really wrong. I made a terrible mistake. I am so sorry. It really, honestly, will never happen again.
JUDGE: How would you feel if someone had been hurt?
ME: I would feel terrible. I would probably never forgive myself.
The judge didn’t believe me. He was disgusted with me. My carefully chosen words weren’t good enough. I was not good enough. He asked me these questions again, and I answered again. I cried. I had forgotten what it is like to be yelled at and shamed. It occurs to me that this is evidence of my good fortune: I am not used to people yelling at me. The judge did not suspend my license. He let me off, but not without first warning me that he had the power to make me walk. I cried some more. I think he liked it when I cried.
Afterward my husband wanted to do something. My uncle, an attorney, told us we really ought to register a complaint with the state bar association. But I think I got the right judge. He convicted me in ways he could not have predicted. I had to be forced to see that I was guilty, even though no one had been hurt; to see that carelessness is the ignorant (but no less dangerous) cousin of recklessness and malice. For too long I have carried my anger like a burden on my back. I have, too many times, been a self-appointed judge over people who have made mistakes. When the judge did not believe me, when my apology was not enough, it was both familiar and distressing. What more did I have than my story and my regret?
What can I trust my mother to see? A long time ago my mother missed some things. Sometimes she was busy missing my father, who was missing things too, by choosing to work instead of coming home to us. Sometimes she was distracted by her own parents, who were taking turns dying of cancer. Sometimes she was drinking. There was also something she did not want to see. Something no parent wants to see. Something so common and awful and tired it has become cliché. My mother did not want to see the family friend quietly and persistently abusing his daughter, my sister, me. How could my mother have missed the signs? When I asked her, so many years later, she could not say. That man and his wife divorced, he moved away, died. Now my mother is the only one left to face judgment, my judgment, and all she has ever offered me is her implausible story and her regret. I wonder now, could my mother really have saved me? Could she have saved any of us? Could my mother have seen anything that close up?
So here is the lesson that keeps following me, and it seems about time for me to pay attention. To forgive means: “to cease to feel resentment against an offender; to give up claim to requital for an insult.” To be forgiving means: “allowing room for error or weakness.” I want this: to be forgiving, to be forgiven. A woman I respect once touched my hand and told me that resentment is a bitter root that poisons the one who chooses to hold on to it. The act of forgiveness, then, is as much a balm for the one in pain as for the one who caused the pain. What kind of forgiveness can I give? What kind of forgiveness can I hope for? Christians everywhere pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And I do not find caveats anywhere. Nowhere do I see the notion that forgiveness is only a good idea if the offenders understand the gravity of the harm; if they acknowledge their role; if they promise to act differently in the future; if they are sorry enough.
I wonder about my own vision: all the other signs that I may have missed, all the beautiful things I may never see because they are too far away. I wonder about how fast I move through the world, and about the need to pay attention. I wonder about the heavy burden of anger carried upon so many backs, the frequent ugliness of power, how it feels to judge and be judged, and how much I want to trust my mother. I wonder about loving my children as much as I can, taking their love in return, and knowing it all has to be good enough. But mostly I wonder about forgiveness.