Love and Forgiveness
On her face was a configuration of emotions – serenity, wistfulness, sorrow. She had an end-of-the-road look about her.
“One of my best friends is dying of cancer,” she said. “It could be any time now.”
I told her how sorry I was, and she sort of smiled and went on to tell me, truly, one of the loveliest stories I’ve heard in a long, long time.
This friend of my friend’s – we’ll call her Marilyn – had several years ago been embroiled in a horrible divorce. She and her husband, whom we’ll call Jake, had cheated on each other, called one another every possible, filthy name in the book, had fought over their bedroom furniture, collection of DVDs, even all the family photos they’d collected throughout their marriage. It was brutal and ugly and they were both at fault. They let down themselves and their children – a pitiful end to a union that had undoubtedly begun with the ambitious, heart-stopping words most of us married people spoke at our weddings: “With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”
Even when the divorce was finalized, and the anger had begun to subside, it seemed all that remained of that original promise was shame and bitterness.
A couple of years after the dust from their split had settled, Marilyn was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent treatment. She was hopeful that would be the end of it, and set about going on with her life – sweating through Spinning class at our gym, driving carpool for her daughters. But three years later, she received her worst and final diagnosis – that of terminal ovarian cancer. This friend, daughter, and mother of two teenage girls had only months to live.
At this point you might be asking, “Isn’t this supposed to be a lovely story?”
But wait! Don’t quit reading now. I acknowledge that was the horrible part. The park your lawn chair on the railroad tracks, pop a cold beer and wait for the inevitable portion of this saga.
The lovely part – no, lovely doesn’t even begin to cut it. The magnificent part, the miraculous part, came in the immediate aftermath of Marilyn’s diagnosis. When she called Jake, her ex-husband, and told him the news.
I’ll just cut to the chase here, because Marilyn and Jake did exactly that. What happened next was that Marilyn and Jake fell in love again. And not just in a friendly, hand-holding, I’m really sorry you’re going to die way, but a balls-out, heart wanting to explode, Harlequin Romance, listen to Lionel Ritchie records together and cry kind of way.
Jake took over all correspondence about Marilyn’s condition – sharing bits of news with friends and family members, asking for prayers. He whisked her away to fancy dinners, shuttled her to doctor’s appointments, guided her on long walks, helped her to the toilet.
Her illness has progressed pretty rapidly since those early months and Marilyn has become frail. Jake now brushes her hair and reads to her. He pushes her wheelchair to their daughters’ games, and has moved into hospice with her – holding her all night.
“Are you sure you didn’t make all this cancer stuff up just to get laid?” One of Marilyn’s friends joked.
And days ago, Jake surprised Marilyn with a trip to the oak tree under which they were married. He had to carry her, as Marilyn is down to only about 60 LBS now. She can no longer eat and is basically starving to death.
Under that oak tree, Jake and Marilyn renewed their vows. “To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”
“They just forgave each other,” my gym buddy told me. “It’s as simple as that.”
Marilyn’s illness brought everything into relief for them. The fact that they’d been crazy about each other once and then proceeded to screw up massively. Anger had replaced love, and even when they’d wanted make up, take back the terrible things they’d said and done, it felt too big. Like they’d gone too far down a very dark road and there was no going back.
Only there was.
And when they did go back, it was instant, sublime – a bolt of lightening illuminating the night sky. They needed no couples’ therapy or promises to never hurt one another again. They simply didn’t have time for that.
“You know what this has taught me?” My friend said. “None of us have time for that.”
It’s a radical statement. Aren’t we, according to the experts, supposed to examine our feelings, work our way to acceptance and forgiveness, negotiate the new terms of our bandaged relationship?
Seems like a colossal waste of time when you look at it. Isn’t the nature of forgiveness to let go completely – put it behind you and embrace the love that’s left. Build on that, do it right. We all know what right looks like, feels like, what it should be. It’s as plain as delighting in the flavors of a favorite dish, taking in the boundless glory of an ocean view. And we know damned well the pitfalls we need to avoid. We can name them like state capitols: jealousy, selfishness, entitlement, neglect.
Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying we should welcome back a spouse who thrives on slapping us around or a friend whose betrayal cost us dearly. One who shows no sign of remorse or change. Being a doormat is not what forgiveness is about.
Sometimes forgiveness is just about letting go and moving on alone. Wishing someone no ill, even if they’re still a son of a b***h and will probably always be a son of a b***h.
But I do think we can all learn a few things from Marilyn and Jake’s extraordinary love story. Even if we’re not facing a death sentence. Instead of patching things up, they opted to start fresh. They made a conscious decision to love one another regardless of the mess they’d made of things years earlier, and in the process gave their girls and each other a most unequivocal gift. Something few of us are able to achieve.
Forgiveness with no footnotes, no terms.
Love, pure and simple.