Friday, September 30, 2011
Atonement and Reconciliation
On the Jewish calendar this is the season of atonement. It is traditionally a period of asking for forgiveness and seeking opportunities to repair wrongs and harms that one has caused. If you have known me for any length of time, you have probably received an apology from me this time of year. I tend to screw up. A lot.
Last year I decided to write to Daphne’s parents asking for forgiveness for my role in the devastating events that brought about the eventual suicide of their daughter. (I am not implying that I was in any way responsible for the actions of the attackers) That one letter set off a domino chain of events that I could have never predicted.
Her mother responded and I learned where Daph was buried. I went to visit the grave which broke me in a million pieces. It was a breaking that finally allowed me to open up some very dark places and grieve. A couple of letters more and her mother asked to meet with me. We met in NYC for lunch but never got past ordering beverages before she started an interrogation, pissed me off, I went off about how the hell could she disown her own child just because she was queer, and she abruptly left. Yeah, that went well.
And then, of course, I had to apologize for my rude behavior. This started another volley of correspondence, both of us wanting and needing information but having difficulty getting past our general disdain for each other.
This week marked the 25th anniversary of the assault. I wanted to go to the cemetery and wound up agreeing to meet Daphne’s mother there. I was both excited and extremely anxious at the prospect of once again trying for some sort of reconciliation. I spent the entire train ride there focusing on staying positive and hoping for some patch of common ground.
We met at the church adjoining the cemetery and shared an uneasy greeting and some awkward small talk. Once again, her eyes stunned me. Like looking right into Daphne’s eyes. Both unsettling and comforting at the same time. It was a gray, dismal day and we walked over to the grave site and stood their, lost in our own thoughts. Then I felt that small warning that I was going to start triggering, the rapid heart beat, the rising anxiety, the overwhelming sadness. And at that moment I reached over and held her hand, not really thinking about it, just needing to ground myself in the present. And she did not let go.
I don’t know how long we stood there like that. I remember feeling that this was an amazing moment and that I needed to remember everything. But all I remember is she did not let go. And the feeling that something huge had just changed. An entire shift in the universe kind of change.
We went to lunch and again the conversation was awkward and halting. I was once again having trouble wondering how a mother could just shut out her daughter. My mind started to wander to all the times Daphne tried to reconcile. All the Mother's Day cards returned, all the phone calls unanswered, or worse, hung up on. Yet Daph continued trying. This woman is a fucking monster, why am I sitting here?
Then I heard her ask me what I had loved most about Daphne. I paused for a long time not sure how to answer. Whoa. Was she acknowledging that we actually had had a loving relationship? This was a change. I answered that it was the way her eyes smiled when she was happy. And her mother smiled a sad smile and said "I remember that too." I could feel the tears filling my eyes, not yet spilling over. Fuck. I am not going to cry in front of this woman.
And then she asked me a lot more questions, but different than last time. Not accusatory. More like she was trying to fill in necessary gaps for herself, very much like I have needed to do. And she answered many of mine. I could see how painful it was for her even though she was putting up quite a rigid facade. Finally she asked me if I would tell her exactly what had happened that day. I hesitated for a long time, wondering if this was wise, and yet understanding that obsession, that needing to know even when you don’t want to know. I have barely been able to verbalize the events of that day, and only with my therapist who dragged the words out of me, each one feeling like a razor as it came. But I did the best I could. I tried to soften it, but there is no soft about it. She asked a few more questions and then simply said "I am sorry." And I said "I’m sorry too." And then the tears started spilling but I didn't really care.
Last year I wanted to do something to honor Daphne’s memory. I decided to start a scholarship at her former high school in her name. It is a very modest amount to be awarded annually to a girl who is going to college for a science. I had mentioned this to Daphne’s mom and she said she would like to supplement that. I told her the scholarship was set up to give preference to a gay woman. She nodded and said that would be okay. Wow.
When we left the restaurant she got a cab and asked if I needed a ride. No thanks, I'd rather walk. Then I leaned in to hug her and she gave me a slight hug back and said "thank you." One of those perfunctory hugs that leave you feeling a little weird. But at least she didn’t throw something at me like last time.
It is amazing to me how far this relationship has come in one year. Two people who have very good reasons to not like each to other but have the love of one amazing woman in common.
Twenty five years ago my life changed forever. For three years I walked around in a dark hole. And then I buried all my feelings and built a new life - a move to a new location, a new job, a new relationship and children. And I have lived this life with much happiness and purpose.
This past year has been one of intense therapy trying to reconnect with that person I buried long ago. It has been a year of deep and much needed grieving and confronting difficult and painful memories. And it has been a year of intense personal reflection and atonement. Mostly it has been a year of reconciliation. Reconciling the events of my past with my life today. Reconciling the grief and loss. And now, a reconciliation of sorts with Daphne's mother.
On the train ride home all I could think about was how everything I had ever learned about reconciliation and healing, all those Sunday School lessons about loving those who are hard to love, everything I had tried to practice about humility and atonement, all the emotional work of the last two years and all that therapy to be able to speak about that one day . . . all of it was preparation for this day. This one day when everything came full circle and the pieces fell into place.
Daphne's eyes would be smiling.