“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
After my mother died I was angry. I was 14 and all I wanted was to be normal. Having a mother with cancer was not normal. Having a mother die was not normal.
She died over the summer, just a few weeks before I started 9th grade. She was 40. The funeral service was large, filled with the many people who loved her.
“Only the good die young,” they said, in unconvinced voices, unable to come up with something more. I had quietly avoided most of the week-long Jewish custom of sitting Shiva by sneaking away with friends to a creek in the woods behind my house to share cigarettes we’d stolen from the mourners’ purses.
The pain and grief was so consuming for my father and grandparents that no one ever noticed the stolen cigarettes. I know now her death must have been a relief for them. She had been sick for almost two years, a losing battle against breast cancer that had spread to her brain. There had been the constant hum of anguished, hushed voices fervently speaking behind closed doors. Even at the age of 14 I quickly learned: My mother never had a chance.
The 14-year-old me was already in the awkward stage that develops between a parent and child when you realize that your parents are fallible. When you realize that they don’t know everything.
“Come sit next to me,” my mother said as she patted the space next to her on my parents’ bed. She was thin and fragile and the bed seemed to swallow her. Her hair had fallen out long ago and she had recently stopped wearing the expensive stylish wigs picked out on shopping sprees with her best friends. Girls day out, cancer style.
I sat close to her. I tried not to breathe in the smell of rubbing alcohol and sweet perfume meant to cover the odor of a bed ridden body. Her waxy yellow complexion and swelling from the steroids gave her face a round moon-like appearance but I was most fixated on the PICC line, permanently affixed to her chest, placed to receive her doses of daily medications after all of her abnormally tiny veins in her arms had collapsed. I imagined a great gush of blood spilling out, sticky, bright red, and cartoonish. Like a scene from a horror film.
She picked up a sketch pad, then reached for a pencil. Her fingers look older than her 40 years. They showed the hardship she tried to hide on her face, in her voice. They seemed the hands of a stranger. I kept my gaze on them while she drew.
She asked me questions about school, about my friends, about my little sister, about the weather. Small talk, normal everyday talk. It irrationally annoyed me.
“Done,” she said turning the sketch pad around to face me. She looked at me with such pleading. “Please,” her expression was saying, “Please let us have this moment.” I looked at my portrait. It was a perfect resemblance, the kind of sketch that displays a mastery of skill despite the quickness with which it is drawn. It showed her true artistic talent.
“Now you will always have something to remember this day,” she said softly.
I felt the lump of anger rising in my throat, my eyes blurry and stinging from squeezing back tears. I ran to my room, the sketch staring back at me from my trembling hands. “How could she be so stupid?” I thought.
“Why would I want to remember this?”
I tore the paper into dozens of tiny shreds. Impossible to put back together. Just like her.
A few weeks later my sister and I were shipped off to sleep away camp for the summer. When we were called to come home almost six weeks later my mother was just days from her death. My sister and I went to the hospital to see her.
“Who are these girls?” she had asked to no one in particular.
And then it happened. I assume she died in the middle of the night. I never asked if she was alone, I was too afraid of the answer. When my father came to tell my sister and I, we were asleep in the guest room that had two beds. We had never slept there before but somehow subconsciously we both just knew that we needed to be there together in that moment, the last moment with a mother and the first moment without one.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I chanted over and over, silently screaming it in my head.
It was too late.
It has been 30 years since my mother died and it is only now that I have been able to forgive my 14-year-old self for my selfish act.
I would give anything to have that portrait of me at 14. Drawn by a mother whose talent for art and everything creative and beautiful made her so special.
The 45-year-old me knows that I was just a kid. I understand that. Can I hold myself accountable for a 30-year-old mistake? Did my mother play it over and over in her mind? Did she, in the midst of her own grief, fear, and pain, regret that moment? Did she toss it aside as the act of a rebellious and confused teenager? Did she sacrifice her feelings as mothers tend to do?
It took 30 years to understand the wisdom of my mother and the art of forgiveness. It took becoming a mother myself. Battling my own tragic circumstances that I never thought possible. It took being strong when I didn’t want to be, courageous when I felt like hiding, forgiving without conditions. It took learning to separate the small things from the big things—and knowing the difference between the two.
Mark Twain said, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
My mother was always the violet, her forgiveness was sweet, heady, unconditional—and always there.
Lauren Cooper is a mother of three, owner of Aspen Street Cakes, and blogs about food and Jewish culture at thefoodjew.com.