The details we received about the night he died were sketchy. He was killed in a small town in West Virginia, by someone he had once called a friend. The young man, who was a member of my brother’s rock band, had an argument. When the discussion got heated, Gary, who never was one for fighting, said he didn’t want to argue anymore and went upstairs to bed.
We’ve never gotten a true picture of what happened after that. What we do know is this; the young man, high on some substance that was a frequent companion of that lifestyle, either fought with Gary and stabbed him in the neck or crept up on him as he slept and cut his throat. In either case, the results were the same.
The call that changed our lives forever came early in the morning on March 7, 1975. It was the state police calling to tell us my brother had died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. I was the youngest child in a family of eight, which in one horrific instant was reduced to seven.
Over the next few days funeral arrangements were made and relatives arrived.
What I remember most is watching my mother. After the call came, she walked all over our three-story house wringing her hands and crying, repeating The Serenity Prayer over and over. She seemed to be searching for something, and many years later when I asked her what it was, she thought for a moment and then said, “I think I was looking for your brother.”
I also watched my mother the night of the wake. I followed her everywhere, needing to be near her. Not many words were spoken between us. What possibly could be said?
I was standing in the vestibule of the funeral home when the funeral director told my mother that she had a telephone call in the office. She followed him to the phone and I followed her.
After listening to her speak for a few minutes, she hung up and relayed to me who was on the other line and what was said.
The woman who called was the mother of the young man who killed my brother. They lived in another state. She didn’t know us and had never met anyone in our family. But she found it within her to track down my mother and tell her how sorry she was for what happened. She said her heart went out to my mom and that she would pray for our family.
What my mother said to her amazes me to this day. She didn’t curse this woman for bringing someone into the world who had taken the life of her child. She didn’t vent all the rage and pain she must have been feeling on the mother of the man who had murdered her son. She did not thank her politely for calling but reject her apology, telling her she would need time before she would be able to even think about forgiveness.
Instead, my mother said, “My heart goes out to you. I now know where my son is every night. I know he is at peace and will come to no more harm. I will never again have to worry whether he’s cold or sick or needs me. Your pain with your son is just beginning. I will keep you both in my prayers.”
They exchanged a few more words, and then my mother hung up the phone and went back to the foot of the casket to accept condolences from those who had come to pay their respects to her son. As young as I was, I knew I had just witnessed something rare and beautiful.
That woman had the courage to reach out a hand to my mother, and my mother had the graciousness to accept it. These two women, both engulfed in sorrow, showed compassion such is rarely seen. To this day, I am awed by the woman’s courage in apologizing to my mother and humbled by my mother’s unhesitating mercy in forgiving the unforgivable.
When the young man’s trial was taking place and people were encouraging my mother to fly to West Virginia to make sure the killer got what was coming to him, my mother’s heart remained the same. She said she would crawl to West Virginia if it would bring Gary back, but since it wouldn’t, she saw no reason to spend her energy making sure someone else suffered.
I don’t remember my mother ever lecturing me on the need to forgive others, even when we believe that what they’ve done is unforgivable. Instead, in a way no words could have, she showed me the need for and the power of forgiveness by demonstrating this truth.
I am now a grown woman with children of my own. With each passing year, I am more aware of the incredible lesson of forgiveness I witnessed that night. Whenever I hear someone talk of why something that someone has done to them is unforgivable, I remember. I remind myself that if you can forgive the person who killed your child, then nothing is unforgivable.
I also wonder if it is not these extraordinary acts of forgiveness by ordinary people that make the world a better place for the rest of us. I know it did for me.