“She hit him with a rock! He had to be given twelve stitches!”
According to the angry woman standing outside our front door, I had deliberately injured her son. Her version of the story was wrong, but I was relieved to know the boy wasn’t dead. That meant the police were not coming to arrest me. There was no more reason to hide…until I heard the sound of my mother’s voice, the anger she punched into the two syllables of my name. I knew her spanking was going to hurt so I remained hidden. Unfortunately, the heat of my attic hiding space rose, as did my thirst and the realization that my punishment would be worse if I didn’t turn myself in.
When I met my mother on the stairs, her mouth opened in stunned surprise. Maybe it was my hair, wet with sweat, or my face, wet with tears; or maybe it was the shocking realization that her eldest child–the one who was “born old” and who had fed and helped to care for a baby sister so responsibly–was, after all, nothing more than a child.
“It was an accident,” I cried.
“Go to your room,” she said. “Wait there until your father gets home.”
My stomach began to ache that afternoon and it continued to hurt at the supper table when, too ashamed to eat, I sat and whimpered as my father continued his stern lecture and description of what we now faced. “I’m a doctor,” he said, “so we’ll be sued. Everyone thinks doctors have a lot of money.” But, as he had explained over and over, because he was a military doctor we didn’t have much money. “We’ll lose everything,” he said, and I thought of the “little match-girl” from my storybook: tattered clothes…no furniture, no food, cold and hungry in the middle of winter.
When at last I was released and told to go to bed, no parent made sure that I took a bath or brushed my teeth. No one said, “Good night. Sweet dreams.” I didn’t think they loved me anymore, or that they ever would. My sin of that day would never be forgiven. And then my despair grew tenfold when I thought about how angry my invisible friend probably was. I had discovered, the year before, that whenever I asked God a question, I got a silent response from within. It was as if a quiet thought, other than my own, formed as a bubble in my heart and quickly rose to pop open in my mind. Had my friend left me, as it appeared my parents had? Would God, like my parents, not forgive me for what I had done?
I stared out the screen of my open window at a moon that was almost, if not completely, full and–since I believed at that time that God lived somewhere in the sky, speaking to me via the “God radio” of my heart–I directed my prayer towards the moon. “God, please, forgive me.”
The response I got was not what I expected: “You must learn to forgive yourself.”
The words made me cry even harder. “I can’t,” I said. “I was too bad.” And in that moment I was surrounded by what felt like the loving embrace of a thousand grandmothers. I looked around expecting to see someone in my room but there was no one there. God, I decided, had used the rays of moonlight to send me a hug. I didn’t want the hug to end so I curled my body into a ball at the foot of my bed, each arm wrapped around my legs in order that every piece of me be in the light of the moon. When I awoke the next morning, I was still at the foot of my bed.
Fortunately, my father was never sued, but for years afterwards I would ask myself, at the beginning of each July, “Have I forgiven myself?” and, year after year, my answer was “No.” But one July I finally answered “Yes.” I was fourteen. It had taken me a long time to forgive myself. Even so I wouldn’t change a thing if I could relive that day from the summer of 1969. That was the day I learned I am loved, truly and unconditionally, even when I am not able to love myself.