At the start of 1993, when I was a mixed-up, young adult, I lived in downtown Chicago. I worked at a pharmaceutical company by day and played and practiced with a rock band during the night with the dream of being able to play music full-time. My mother, who lived near Cleveland, had been battling breast cancer and at this time things took a turn for the worse. She was pronounced terminal and we prepared for her imminent death. My father, locked in the downward spiral of alcoholism, washed his hands of the whole thing, leaving my mother's palliative care in my sister's hands and mine. My sister and I were overwhelmed by the immediacy of the situation and how we could best provide for her in these final days. Since my sister lived nearby my parents, by far the brunt of my mother's care fell squarely on her shoulders, and while she never once complained about it, the point was reached where my sister simply needed a lengthy break and so it was decided I would take a leave from work for a week to spell her.
Those memories of being with my mother for that week still haunt me from time-to-time. She was in such pain that she had to sleep on a soft couch in the guest room. I would curl up on the floor with an afghan at night in order to easily administer to her needs. I would have to roll her over, change her bed pan, give her a sponge bath, give her fresh morphine patches and pills, feed her, etc. Because the cancer was so rampant through her body, any of these activities would be a long process because of the sheer pain they caused. One time, I remember looking down on my mother as she was sitting on the couch, her chest a flat plate with two gaping scars where her breasts used to be, crying hysterically because her son was having to bathe her. I reassured her that she wasn't the first naked woman I had ever seen and tried my best to use smiles and humor to lift her spirits and mood. At times, she would wake me up in the middle of the night to have me tell her my favorite childhood memory, or to warn me about how quickly life goes by. One night in particular stands out. She woke me up and had me promise to plant a dogwood tree in her memory if I ever got a house or a farm someday.
Now, here comes the aforementioned lesson and the stark truth of something else I observed in that final week and I'll pull no punches here. While my mother had many wonderful attributes, unfortunately she could stubbornly hold a grudge like no other. In looking back on it, this was perfect fuel for the narcissistic-codependent relationship my parents never extricated themselves from, going round and round their Karpman drama triangle. Once my mother felt she was "wronged", there was just no forgiveness. It could be that she was unconsciously reenacting some unhealthy childhood dynamic she was taught; it could be that in being "wronged", this allowed her to be a victim and to attain some twisted sense of moral superiority. Who definitively knows and does it matter now? The point is that even on the verge of death my mother went on and on about transgressions and slights persons X, Y, and Z had committed against her, rather than spending precious, dwindling time connecting with her son or looking back to savor moments of her life. To me, this is tragic and chilling, is it not?
Nelson Mandela once said, "Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies." Holding grudges evokes a steep, dreadful cost and that cost is wasted life. Holding grudges, believing as true our own dark, subjective, and carefully edited narratives of past and present events, is itself, a cancer, fed from the inside out by a consuming anger and hatred not just of others, but oftentimes of ourselves. How do we want our lives to be remembered? Hanging on to a misunderstanding in order to "be right"? Engaged in silent treatments? Partaking in petty gossip? Going to the grave squabbling over a few dollars?
No, not me. I prefer morning walks down along the river. Making a good loaf of banana bread. Reading a good book. The look on a student's face when they understand a topic in lecture. And now there is a dogwood tree to be planted. I want my life to be founded on choosing and receiving forgiveness, a "constant attitude" per Martin Luther King Jr. I want it to be a forward-moving, far-reaching trajectory of peace and spirituality in accordance with my values, that moves humanity forward. And even though I will stumble, toil, and struggle along the way in the constant work synonymous with any relationship, isn't that why they call it unconditional love?