Or, Forgiveness Part IV
“When I was in school in England, did you ever wonder about me? Whether I liked my school, which subjects I liked, whether I was sick or well, if sick did I know what to do, when my school holidays were, whether I had a place to stay?”
“It never occurred to me,” my mother replied. She was visiting me for the first (and last) time in California.
You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
“That can’t be!” my cousin Kola insisted when I described the conversation. “What did she actually say?”
I assured him that I was quoting.
“But if that’s true, she wasn’t the aunty I thought I knew,” Kola continued.
“Of course she was the aunty you experienced,” I offered. “She just wasn’t the mother to me that you assumed she had to have been.”
At the time of my mother’s visit, America was the only home I’d known as a grown-up (this is still true). Over the years, I had become accustomed to receiving nasty letters from my parents. Actually it was only my father who wrote nasty letters. The other letters were from people with whom my mother had spoken. Somehow, successfully removing myself from a toxic situation had incurred my parents’ wrath.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
So when I got on a plane because my mother and grandmother had just been killed in a car accident, I felt like I too was headed for my own death. The next few days were a blur. I had arranged to stay with a family friend who was going to meet me at the Lagos airport. Instead I found myself being driven away by my father, against my wishes. At his house there was a big, cheery banner: Welcome Home! Then I got a lecture about how I was not to spend any time with my mother’s relatives. The circumstances of my childhood estrangement all came rushing back …
Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.
After a tense night, I got away in the morning. There were multiple days of services for my mother where I got to know her in a completely new way. After the final burial service, my father called me at “Guadalupe’s” home.
“Did you know that your stepmother read from the same book at her mother’s funeral?!” he exclaimed.
“That’s a strange coincidence,” I replied quietly.
I had struggled with what to offer my mother at her funeral. Her visit to see me had been difficult and peculiar. We didn’t know each other, didn’t know how to be around each other. Yet losing her and my grandmother had felt like a rug being pulled out from under me; A rug I hadn’t known was there in the first place. Maybe it was the death of future possibilities.
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
I decided to read the passage on death from The Prophet at my mother’s funeral. I had loved it since first discovering it at the University of Edinburgh. We didn’t have much of a relationship but I could offer her something authentic. That authenticity must have struck a chord because I got many warm comments from people who had attended the service.
Feeling baffled by my own suspicions, I repeated my father’s words to Guadalupe as neutrally as I could. “That’s a lie!” Her reaction was instinctive, immediate, angry. Guadalupe didn’t even believe that my stepmother had ever heard of The Prophet before being told about my reading. “She’s still competing with you.”
So, that’s what was going on? My stepmother had been competing with a nine-year-old child?
Upon returning home to California, my Swedish half-brother died and I got on another plane, this time to the other side of the world. It took about three months afterwards for my daze to begin wearing off, as though it were being pierced by lightning bolts of pain.
I woke up one morning unable to move my limbs. The diagnosis was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which I had thought only happened to war veterans. I believe now that I also had grief-induced Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I was helped significantly by EMDR therapy for post-traumatic stress, then returned to work – with difficulty – about a year and a half later. I hadn’t been diagnosed or treated for Chronic Fatigue and I think the underlying hypothalamic dysfunction continued to worsen over the next few years, until a couple more hits to my system resulted in my condition today.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
These are difficult experiences to share but I’m struck by the lightness of being that I feel. I didn’t want to admit many things from my past to myself, let alone to the world. I didn’t want to be the person to whom these things had happened. And yet as my story reveals itself, I feel so light. The truth really does set one free. I am freeing myself to be who I am by “coming out” to you.
All quotes above are from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. They are presented here in the same sequence as written in the chapter where the Prophet speaks “On Death.”