My first memory of my mother isn’t really a memory at all. It’s more of a fragmented, dream-like outline, shaded and color-washed by the stories of others. I have never been sure which sounds and images are my own and which belong to someone else, mere byproducts of hearing the story repeated throughout my life. I believe I can see my mother’s blank and tear-streaked face hovering over me. I think I hear my sister’s shocked intake of breath.
But I definitely remember the pistol. It is entwined in the folds of my memory much as it lay twisted in my bed sheets after my sister rescued me. I was only four years old when it happened, but that pistol, still rendered in living color 42 years later, has always haunted me.
No one has ever explained my mother’s intentions. My father and sisters didn’t know, and my mother – who was shuffled off for another stay in a psychiatric hospital after the incident – claimed not to remember anything. Unanswered questions tormented me for years. Why was my mother in my room and sitting on my bed? Why did she have me beside her? What was she planning to do with that pistol? These questions defined my attitude toward my mother for most of my life; I both loved and hated her, but I could never really forgive her.
As I grew older, my relationship with Mom soured. She’d been abused in childhood, and the abuse had left her with deep emotional wounds that caused her to strike out at those she loved. Everyone in our home lived in fear of her anger. My sisters and father were not immune, and they felt her wrath often. However, my mother focused a great deal of her rage on me, venting it in angry and hurtful words. I don’t know why I was her favorite target. Perhaps, it was because I was her youngest child, but after my sisters moved out, things really got bad. I carried dozens of memories of her anger, and for most of my life, bitterness about those memories would not allow me to forgive Mom for her mistakes.
People say God works in mysterious ways, that because He is the author of every human story, He knows how to move in our hearts.
In 1996, when I was getting ready to enlist in the Army, God set His mysterious plan for forgiveness into motion. Everyone noticed that Mom was repeating herself, telling the same stories over and over, and she would often forget how to do simple things. Most of us thought it was just part of the aging process – after all, people tend to forget things as they get older – but God knew I needed to see another side of my mother before I could forgive her. He understood the radical changes that would be necessary.
While I was in basic training, my mother wrote me often. Her letters were child-like in their simplicity and filled with love. Her handwriting became child-like too, and her writing was filled with errors, which was out of character for someone who’d always been a perfectionist. She often wrote of God and His plans for me and her pride in my decision to serve our country. As time went on, it became clear that Mom was a different person, radically changed according to God’s plan.
In 1997, my sister called me and said Mom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I was crushed. Thinking of this headstrong, intelligent woman suffering from a disease that would rob her of her mind little by little left me wondering how I could ever forgive her if we couldn’t talk through all of my painful childhood memories. But God knew better than I what true forgiveness and healing would take.
When I came home on leave for the first time, Mom was indeed a different person. She met me at the door with a genuine smile and a warm hug. She praised me for the way I looked and complemented me for the way my hard work in basic training had turned me into a man. All day I marveled at the amazing person this horrible disease had produced. She sang children’s songs, clapped with joy over hummingbirds, and was delighted at the taste of grape jelly.
On that day, I saw the child Mom had been before the abuse destroyed her ability to express love in a healthy, nurturing way, and it melted my heart. I forgave her for all of her mistakes that day.
Mom died in 2001. At her funeral, I didn’t think of the woman who’d come into my room with a pistol. I didn’t think of her anger and rage. I thought of the child-like person who met me at the door when I came home. I thought of the woman singing children’s songs with such joy.
My mother’s disease is a testament to God’s wisdom and love. He knew I would never be able to forgive my mother unless I saw her for the person she might have been if she’d not suffered so greatly in childhood. Although I miss my mother, my memories now are happy ones. All of my bitterness has been replaced with love for my mother, and that is one of God’s greatest gifts in my life.