Forgiving Trauma Makers

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Eighteen was the magic number.

Once I was eighteen, the state couldn’t keep her from contacting me, or vice versa. I worked hard to forget what it felt like to see that note on the door that got the state involved in the first place. It was a warm April day and after an investigation and arrest of her live in boyfriend, the state had deemed her competent to take care of me, and so the social workers, a few plastic bags of clothes and me headed to the place my mom lived, I am not sure I ever called it home. As soon as the social worker put the car in park, I saw the pink note on the door, and I knew it wasn’t good. I didn’t even get out of the car, but the nice lady did a poor job of hiding the familiar handwriting on the sticky note–“Gone To Get Married. Mom”. Her boyfriend had been released from jail and apparently, they both skipped town. My eyes still water a little as I write these words, my stomach drops, and the same thoughts go through my mind….” How, why, what did I do?”  

I have since forgiven her but in no way have, I forgotten, not in the true sense of the word and my soul bears the scars of that decision that she made, my very being remembers, there has been no forgetting. And so, the subscription to the thought process that “forgiving is forgetting” was not a good thing and before I attempt to tell you my forgiveness story, I can absolutely say to you that forgiving is not forgetting.

It wasn’t a surprise to anyone that I wanted contact with her when I turned 18. Daughters want their moms and I was no different, and so 6 months after my 18th birthday, I saw her for the first time since she abandoned me 3 years prior. It was my high school graduation, where I delivered a valedictorian speech, and avoided eye contact with her in the audience. I found Mom McGowan in the crowd, it was her smile and glitter in her eyes that lowered my heart rate so that I could deliver a speech on Phil 1:6—About how God always finishes the work He starts in all of us, writing this story is a fulfillment of that very scripture. It was June 6th, 1990.

Just a little over 1 year later, I stood in an ICU unit staring at her in a hospital bed. Her body was covered with tubes and machines who’s sounds of beeps and whooshes told us that she was alive. I was in my first semester of my sophomore year of college and still lived 120 miles away from where she lay in the hospital, ironically, the same hospital where I was born—the place my life began, and now they were telling us that her life was ending. I had one weekend off a month and so I’d picked a cool fall weekend in October to spend with her in the ICU unit. I refused to leave, and the nurses took just as good care of a hurting kid as they did my mama, providing warm blankets, and snacks was their way of showing deep compassion for the decision that was coming for us. We were kids, but the decision to pull life support was necessary and I knew it, but on this weekend, I just wanted to be in the same room with the woman who gave me life. Maybe I could find some peace in between the beeps of the heart monitors and the swish sound of the ventilator. Maybe, just maybe I could forgive and figure out a way to forget like I had been taught, but I was pretty sure I was never going to forget 14 years of damage from her. But I didn’t want her to die and I had not told her that I forgave her, because I needed it to be true.

The hospital is situated just blocks from where we grew up, and the view from her room was familiar and so it was hard not to see the trauma places and not experience resentment and bitterness for the woman dying in the bed—the beeps of those machines told me I had more time—so I stood at that window all weekend trying to  figure out how I could absolve her of all that she had done. After all, that is what I thought forgiveness meant, like literally just pretending it never happened.

When it came time for me to leave and go back to college, I stood as close to her bed as I had all weekend, I looked down at her hand, which was more bones than skin, I looked at her face, and even though she was intubated, I could see every single bad choice she ever made carved on a tired, and sad face. I thought about grabbing her hand before leaving the hospital to go back to school, in a way, it would have been my way of telling her that we were ok, but we weren’t ok, I still had questions and she was never going to wake up to answer them. The machine beeps had really been comforting often quieting my own racing brain as I both tried to say goodbye to my mom but also come to terms with her complete lack of care for us and that she never had and never would ask us to forgive her. So, I looked back down at her hand, watched her chest rise and fall, swallowed the bile that had invaded my throat and walked out of the hospital room. I couldn’t even bring myself to grab her hand. I wanted it all to be ok, it just was never ok. I knew she was dying, I hoped I would have another chance. I walked out of the hospital just in time for the wind to blow a coffee smell that assaulted my senses and definitely reminded me of the Jacksonville where all the trauma happened, the Maxwell House HQ across the river could tell so many stories. I cried as I drove back to school. I’d been told many times that I was to forgive, but that was included with words like “forget” or phrases like “treat the person like it never happened” and none of that seemed doable to me, all of it hurt in the deepest parts of me.

Just a few months later, I got the phone call and it wasn’t a surprise.  Just ten days after I turned 20 years old, my sister called me at college and told me it was time, and they needed us to sign paperwork that meant we would be removing life support. I wasn’t even old enough to rent a car to drive to them, but I was faxing paperwork to the hospital giving them permission to remove life support. By the time I made it to Jacksonville the next morning, she was gone. She lived fifty minutes off of life support. We did the best we could to have some sort of memorial service, but it was all very obligatory and I couldn’t wait to get out of Jacksonville. I had no idea the darkest days were still very much in front of me.

As I attempted to grieve the death of my mama, I often was riddled with guilt of that memory of refusing to grab her hand—I was and am so sad that she stepped out into eternity thinking that I had not forgiven her, and she was right, I had not. At least I had not made any formal “transactions” to do so.  Her exit off the planet kind of made forgiving her inconsequential, and I was still operating under a faulty definition of forgiveness, too. I could not meet those standards of forgiveness, so I stopped trying.

I went back to school and did what I do, hit the gas, lived life wide open avoiding thinking of my mom or my unforgiveness. I did make a vow to never leave things unresolved with another person again, and that no matter how badly a person hurt me, I would immediately “forgive” (whatever that meant I was there for it) and strove to avoid conflict at all costs. I never wanted to feel that pain of regret again.

Just four years later, I had married and was hopeful of a life different from the one I’d lived, I was never the girl that dreamt of a wedding or a family, every day seemed like a bonus to me, so when I met John Watson, I leaned into that and was determined to be loved, and to love with everything I had too. And, I had my companion of regret that would make me better at relationships, I was still determined to never feel the regret of unforgiveness again. And so, I tried to be perfect, I wanted to be everything he wanted and needed.  He had demonstrated verbal abuse long before the first hit. I just absorbed the pain of his words, but determined to not hold it against him, or forgive him, or whatever would make me feel less fearful of that regret again. I loved him and I did not want to keep records of wrong-doings, I wanted my love for him to be I Cor 13 kind of love, I even had that read at our wedding. And so, I worked hard to just overlook all the things, in my “forgiveness” of his abusive behavior, I kept myself in the line of fire, and in a domestic violence situation, this can be deadly. That is how I understood forgiveness, we forget, and we move on with life, and so that is what I tried to do. This is NOT forgiveness.

Then the first hit came.

Nothing prepares you, though, for that first hit. I really can’t explain how confused I was. It didn’t stop after the first hit, it only ended after he locked me out of the house after dragging me to the door, the bleeding in my ear finally stopped and by that time he was knocking at my neighbor’s door where I went when he locked me out of the house, it was like nothing ever happened in his mind, and in mine, the throbbing of my nose and the bruise on my head felt nothing like the regret of withholding forgiveness. And so, I just marched on but that first hit has a strong fingerprint on my soul, that was the time I was convinced I was just on this planet to be mistreated by others.  We never talked about it, the abuse just got more frequent over the years, and I kept “forgiving” him, but I was pretty sure that at some point, John was going to need to be forgiven 491 times, one more time than Jesus told Peter we were to forgive.

As the abuse got worse, he began to isolate me more, this need to “forgive” him subsided as did the freshness of that regret I had from my mom. I truly did not wish him harm but he was hurting me in the deepest, deepest parts of me, and eroding any self- worth I had left.  He hurt me deeply with his words and his lack of care for me as his wife, shredded me. Seeds of hurt that I’d tried so hard to sweep off the surface of my heart began to take root and bitterness came. It was lonely, I’d not told a single soul that he was hitting me.

One night, I was sitting in the balcony of North Jacksonville Baptist Church at a Steven Curtis Chapman concert. I was there with a college buddy and it felt good to be in a church, I hadn’t been in one for a while. I enjoyed the concert but at the end I found myself unable to move, stunned and with tear- soaked tissues. SCC at the time had teamed up with an organization called “End of the Speer”—the organization is in support of missions to a tribe where 4 missionaries were murdered, most of them prominent missionaries (Nate Saint and Jim Elliott being two of them) in the Ecuadorian forest. They were brutally murdered by tribesmen with the actual death coming by way of the end of a spear.  I’d heard the story before, maybe had even read the book, but I was not prepared for what SCC had for us that night.

As it turns out, Rachel Saint, Nate Saint’s sister went back to the village, and shortly thereafter her nephew, Steve Saint, joined her and together they were part of a team that did introduce the gospel to that tribe. I was stunned by the act of forgiveness and the compassion that the family of Nate Saint demonstrated to that tribe. I was pretty sure they hadn’t forgotten nor could they pretend that it never happened, but they clearly made some sort of transaction with God that equated love because that is what reached that tribe for Jesus. As I was processing that, and ignoring the rolling tears, I begged God to help me to forgive my mama and the monster that was waiting for me at home. Then….

SCC said “and I would like to introduce you Mincaye, he is the chief that killed Nate Saint. The man, short in stature, shuffled out to the state with a taller man, his interpreter, I thought. When Steve Saint began to translate the Mincaye’s story of his father’s murder I violently heaved with emotion. I was simply overtaken by the compassion of the man translating the chief’s story. As of that date, Steve Saint was still living among that tribe, building aircraft and flying in supplies for them—the tribe that took as he describes “his hero” out of his life when he was just ten years old. My friend sat quietly beside me and the entire church was silent as all of us tried to imagine this kind of forgiveness. The lyric in the song “Quiet Uptown” from the blockbuster Hamilton reminds me of what we were all thinking that night…..

“Forgiveness, can you imagine?”

I thought,

“Surely, if they can forgive people that murdered their families, I can forgive mom and John….”

That was the night I started those transactions, but that is what they were transactions, the evaluation of the meaning of forgiveness and what needed to heal before I was even capable of making such a transaction.

It would have been easy to be motivated to forgive both of them by that feeling of regret I had after my mom died, but I truly wanted to forgive them and after what I saw on that stage, I knew it was possible for me to forgive both of them.

I would be lying if I told you that somewhere, deep inside, that my core motivation when I chose to pursue forgiving John was that our marriage would be restored, that he would get help and that the years of pain could be a distant memory, one that both of us used to help other people. But that isn’t how the story went and ultimately I did leave him, and he provided many more opportunities to forgive after I left, but I will never forget him saying the words “I am so sorry” with tears in his eyes, just before I left our home with a U-Haul filled with a fraction of my earthly belongings. I remembered that eternity is affected by decisions like this and on that day, the day I left, I can honestly say my words to him were accurate, as all I could muster was “I forgive you”, and then I left.

After a few years later and a LOT more trauma, I received a phone call that John had been found dead in a hotel room. He died alone and that made me sad and confused and every gamete of emotion but one thing I did not feel was regret.

I meant it when I told him I forgave him, but the years following were years of choices to do so, and my choices were driven by one thing, one thing I learned that night so many years before, a lesson demonstrated to me by the family of Nate Saint, on that stage at the SCC concert:

Compassion.

And that was the question that changed everything for me. “What happened to both of them? What hurt were they tending inside of them? Who or what broke them?”—those genuine questions turned into real compassion for both of them, I may never know the answer to those questions, even though I’d hoped one day to get that answer from John, that day was just never to come. I often tell people that I make transactions to forgive both of them, because for me it was never a one-time deal, the pain both of them dealt is real and it left scars, and so I often have to tend to the compassion a little more than the hurt in my heart. It keeps the seeds on hurt on top again, easily swept away by the gift of compassion.

A few years ago, I was sitting in a Maundy Thursday service at a church in Lecanto, Florida. Lecanto is not my home town, it is nowhere near my hometown and the fact that I moved there is kind of a miraculous story in itself, but it is a small town situated in a large county with little commercialism and most people have never heard of it. I tell you that because what happened next was the pinnacle of my decision to focus on compassion for their hurts thereby healing mine.

Because it was a Maundy Thursday service, it was a somber occasion and the pastor had a huge wooden cross at the front of the church. Each of us lined up with a piece of paper and a nail with the idea being to nail things to that cross that already covered it—things we couldn’t let go of, things that we wanted to symbolically crucify or more accurately remember Who was crucified so that all of it could be okay.  And so I wrote “Mom & John” on my paper, got in line, nailed it to that wooden cross and made my way back to my seat. I closed my eyes and listened as others hammered their own pain to that cross, it was an amazing experience. And then, the tap on my shoulder…..

“Amy, I want you to meet someone” my friend said. I’d shared that End of Spear story with her for good reason, her name was Anne Saint Steve Saint’s daughter in law. She quickly reintroduced me to Steve Saint, who I had met before, but then I saw the man standing beside him.

Chief Mincaye. The man who shoved the end of the spear into the chest of Nate Saint. He was standing right there in front of me, in a big church in a little town in Florida. I was stunned, there it was redemption standing right in front of me. The product of compassion was standing right in front of me. I sobbed; they didn’t ask why—it didn’t matter.  I was stunned at the opportunity to meet one of the men who killed 4 missionaries, and when we closed in a worship song, he didn’t understand a word of it, but his blood-stained hands were raised to the great redeemer of it all.  And it reminded me of the song that SCC closed that concert with that night. Chief Mincaye sang the words that night in his native tongue…

“My Redeemer is faithful and true; my redeemer is faithful and true….”

So, what is forgiveness? Have I even answered the question for you?  Probably not as I have a distain for the definitions, we normally hear about it, and we certainly are wrong when we tell people it is always a one- time decision, that it means that you will forget or even that you should not remove yourself from a toxic situation.

Most people aren’t going to like how I am able to forgive because it doesn’t seem fair, why should we have compassion on those that hurt us? Well, that Ecuadorian tribe is all following Jesus now, and had Rachel Saint not figured out a way to follow the compassion in her heart, who knows if they would have ever been reached. And that would have been tragic, just as tragic as a person who is living with those seeds of hurt burying themselves deeply into the hearts of people who can’t let it go. Love requires that you let it go, and spoiler alert, you still love the person that hurt you or it wouldn’t hurt. Love is final, and it requires you to find a way to forgive, and to live in that forgiveness and that redemption.

We see this in the Bible with Joseph, he forgave his brothers out of deep compassion for them even though they in no way deserved it. But the best example of all was Jesus. He felt such deep compassion for the very people who nailed Him to a tree, so much so that His words “Forgive them for they know not what they do” is so powerful.

Compassion, the secret sauce to forgiveness?  Eph 4:32 mentions compassion before forgiveness because maybe that is what needs to happen first, I don’t know.  But I do know that forgiving the trauma makers is healing to your heart, it has been to mine. Without viewing both of them through the lenses of compassion, and some information that came later, it would be so easy to live in the repercussions of what both of them did and live a substandard version of myself. But just like Jesus said in Jude 24-25, “turn, have compassion on them”…making a difference…”

Maybe you are that difference.

A very special person taught me one of my favorite verses and this is how I view the “unfairness” of …not offer a sacrifice that costs me nothing.(2 Samuel 24:24)

I realize that I may have left you with more questions than answers. But the reality is, I am telling you how and why I can forgive, not hold it against my mom and John and all the things that unforgiveness brings. I realize it doesn’t seem fair but I am grateful for the gift of compassion and love that allows me to share this powerful message of forgiveness. I reject typical definitions of forgiveness and especially in domestic violence situations strongly advise against subscribing to just standing in line for more pain. That isn’t forgiveness that is faulty logic. We all need to find a way to forgive, so the pain doesn’t just keep on giving. It is true that in order to be forgiven by God you have to forgive, but I submit to you that forgiveness is a fruit of being forgiven. And so, if you haven’t made a choice to trust in Jesus, please reach out to someone who can help you do that. You are so loved, and compassion spurs my heart to introduce you to the Star of my story, Jesus, the ultimate Forgiver.

Because he is Forgiveness, and HE is the reason we have compassion.

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