In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I imagine forgiveness comes to us like a far-off song, and when your body is seized by that distant music, you can’t fight it; your hips begin moving, then the rest of you, even if you can’t really hear the damn melody, don’t recognize the tune. . . . What I mean to say is: I want to forgive my ex-husband. I don’t want to die hating, or even resenting, him. We will never make love, never even kiss again. Never. So where is that song of forgiveness, reputed to be so sweet?
All this is coming to me now because his mother, my former mother-in-law, is dying. I haven’t seen her in fifteen years — the same fifteen years it’s been since I saw him, except for that chance meeting seven years ago at Coughlin’s Market, next to the produce. I was shocked at what time had done to his dear face. “You look gray,” I said, meaning I saw new white hairs I’d never touched. “I look great?” he said. “No, gray,” I said, and he immediately countered with “And you look old.” Flustered, I muttered something about how real living should show, how if you didn’t really live you might still look twenty-five — all of it bullshit to drown the deep-down, dirty hurt in my chest. He always did that, hurt me. And I took it, along with all the good things he did for my heart — not to mention the gold earrings from Florence, the thick silver necklace, the Icelandic coat that came with its own special brush.
His mother once sent me twenty dollars for Christmas, and I bought a bunch of little gifts for myself. One of them was a mug with bunnies on it; they were having sex, really going at it. “The fucking-bunny cup,” my kids called it. Most mugs break, get lost, are tossed out, but not this one. It’s like new except for the dark stains at the bottom that Clorox won’t touch, just like his stain that time won’t touch, because whenever I think . . . No. No dreams, no thoughts of him. It’s over. I get into the car and that goddamn Nanci Griffith song starts in my head again: “And if I miss you / Well, you know what they say / Just once in a very blue moon.”
He has gone to get his mother and bring her to die at his house, once ours, two towns away. I hear this news from my daughter the day after I finally sent him a note, figuring I’d try to forgive him on paper. I made it short and gracious, thanked him for the time we shared, admitted it was probably the finest time in my life — not that I’m not happy with my new husband, as I hope he is with his new wife. Of course, now he probably won’t get the letter until he returns with his mother, and maybe in the interim his new wife will read it and throw it away and loathe me even more than I imagine she already does.
Still, I feel the Florence Nightingale in me waking up again, as she does when I read news of great troubles in the world, such as in Rwanda or Bosnia. I imagine myself bedecked in white, entering that house, which was once mine, to serve his mother in her dying. I imagine how I’d read her Psalms (I’m good at reading aloud), how I’d look into her eyes in that house I haven’t been in for so long: the house he built for us, where I had my own small room with a white carpet. Maybe his mother will die in that white-carpeted room, just across the hall from the room where we slept and made love, where once lightning almost killed me. Maybe I will attend her.
But get real, I tell myself. His mother will die without me. She will be with him, and his new wife, a nurse, will undoubtedly attend. Perhaps I will visit once, when he’s not at home. Yes, I’ll arrange that. I will walk through that door into our palace of heaven and hell, up the stairs that our puppy, Maggie, used to fall down, and into the bedroom that contained the largest dream of my life.
Once, when we were young and going through one of our toughest times, I said to him, “We’d better work it out, or we’ll come back and torture each other again in different guises.” I was thinking about the psychic who’d told us (and whom we’d half believed) that in a former life I had been a famous male poet and he had been my wife. I’d neglected him terribly then, and now he was paying me back with his narcissism and disregard. Who knows? Still I pray: O gods of all the earth, I praise you for your power to damage and repair. Our fires haven’t purified us yet. In the meantime, what will we do? O what in the world will we do?
He calls me early one morning to tell me his mother has arrived and would like to see me. He thanks me for my letter, apologizes for not answering, explains how difficult it has been. The conversation is surprisingly relaxed, as if it were a continuation of one we had yesterday. I stare out the window at my garden, where the tulips are up, tall and yellow. I tell him I’d love to come over. Then immediately I begin to panic at the thought of seeing the house, his mother, and him all at once. I call back the next day and ask apologetically if he could make himself scarce when I visit. He says he’ll try, but he’s not comfortable leaving her alone, so he’ll have to be there at least long enough to let me in.
The driveway to our old house is a familiar serpentine curve, and sumac still intrudes on the long, narrow garden. The chicken coop has been converted into a toolshed, but the small stream beside it gurgles as it used to. The trees have grown taller, casting the house in shadow. The hosta has been moved from beside the front door to a skimpy flower garden under the kitchen window. There is green mold on the sill.
I knock and enter the mud room. Through the window of the door, I see him in the kitchen. The shadows of the tall trees are everywhere. He waves me inside. As I step into the kitchen, I hear Marian, my former mother-in-law, call my name. It is all oddly Shakespearean, and at the same time utterly ordinary. Not knowing what else to do, I give him a cursory hug, then call to Marian, “I’m coming!”
She is in bed in the corner of the living room. She stretches her arms up toward me, fingers moving quickly in a hurry-up gesture, as if she were playing a harp just over her head. I bend to hug her; the flannel of her pale pink shirt is soft on my cheek. She is warm and sweet smelling, and I think: Death does not smell this way.
We hold hands as I sit on the edge of her bed, and she speaks of how she is ready to die. She is lucid and glowing, her hair thick and lively. The cancer in her stomach, she explains, takes away her appetite and gives her pain, but the morphine helps with that. “In the meantime,” she purrs, her eyes moistening, “I’m so glad that you two have become friends again, so happy. . . . I was so sad when you split up. I just didn’t understand it; you two had so much in common.”
The couch he and I bought together in New York is behind her head, its green upholstery faded. The lilac I planted just outside the window is about ten feet tall now, the branches spindly, a few stubborn blossoms at the top. It’s just too dark here, I think. Then I kiss Marian’s hand and read her a Psalm, exactly as I imagined.
The next day, my ex-husband calls to say how hard my visit was for him, how he felt frazzled and upset, how it reminded him of the old days when he was always at a loss to deal with my emotional needs.
I listen quietly, then thank him and say, “Well, we sure have improved our ability to communicate.”
“I should hope so,” he says.
A week later, he and I kneel beside her. She is obviously near the end. The death mask is in place, her breathing labored. “I want to go home,” she mumbles. “I want to go home.” He is stroking her brow, and I notice that his free hand is around mine. We tell her she is going home.
Once she grows quiet, he turns to me and says, “This has been so stupid.” He means, I realize, our fifteen-year silence, and everything behind it.
“Painful and stupid,” I say. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s over.”
He nods in agreement, and we squeeze each other’s hands, then turn back to tend his mother. And just like that, I know forgiveness has arrived.