Ahhhh forgiveness. It’s a funny thing. It’s very easy to say the words, “It’s okay, I forgive you.” But do we always feel them? How about those who really want to forgive, to rid themselves of the burden of anger. As much as I may think I want to let go, quite often I have no idea on how to let go.
Sometimes though, it just happens without even trying.
I met Ralph many years back. I was barely in my teens and he was probably in his mid-to-late 40’s, which made him a very old man in my eyes. He oozed charm, and from day one I couldn’t completely figure the line where his sincerity faded and his bullshit started. In time I learned he loved with intensity. He was generous to a fault. He was a liar, and when sneakiness permitted, a hot-headed jealous drunk. With age, he mellowed and the hot-headed part mellowed with him. The lies became unnecessary, and the drinking wasn’t quite what it used to be.
He also made the life’s mistake of falling head over heels in love with my mother.
Pity the man who did this, especially with the intensity he did.
His initial timing was off, because she was heavily involved with another man. It was through this man that Ralph actually met my mother. He didn’t care. He had set his mind on my mother and nothing would shake it, even breaking the graces of a friendship. He wooed her with great abandon, using every trick in the book, starting with the attempted schmoozing of her 13 year-old daughter who found his over the top charm very uncomfortable. “Hey put in a good word for a love-sick man, could you?” he said as he smiled the smile I would accustom myself too, and flashed his Irish baby blues. I told her more in an “Ohhh gross!” fashion, but I think despite her relationship status with another, she liked it. She apparently had some interest in him, because no sooner would she go thru one of many break-ups, Ralph would start coming around. As we got to know him neither my brother or I were particularly fond of him. We would witness his drunk jealous temper tantrums from time to time, and while it was never threatening, it was enough to deem him an asshole to a couple of teenagers. Eventually my mom laid down the no-drinking law with him, His drinking would earn him a ban from the house for days, or weeks and we would silently cheer his absence. as things seemed to chill.
The irony on his suspension from alcohol, while she still drank was never lost on any of us.
My brother and I weren’t bad kids, but my mom was excessively controlling and strict. More often than not, Ralph would play the role of the back-door snitch, just further elevating his role as Unwanted Part-Time Boyfriend in our house. It became a small quiet war off and on for a time, my brother and I vs. Him. We’d find the hidden hootch (he was extremely clever in his hiding places) and we’d tell. He’d hear one of us sneaking out or in, and he’d tell. Eventually I think we all wanted a break, and silently called a truce. Like most learned battling my mom, it’s was much more effective to pool resources and work as a team.
Plus I was starting to discover, this one wasn’t leaving. His persistence paid off, and four years later when it finally ended between her and the other man for good — in a sweeping blast of slammed doors and hot tears and child playing mother to a broken heart –– the dust cleared and there he stood to pick up the pieces. I think she was too exhausted to fight it, and she literally fell into a relationship with him that lasted another 18 years.
I learned a lot about him during these times. He had nowhere to go when she would throw him out, but he never ventured far. He was like someone who had been transported from an earlier time period. He knew he was meant to be with her, he just needed her to know that too. His manners were almost old fashioned, and in some ways he seemed much older than he really was. She took precedence over everything. Finally he earned my love on a cold rainy January night when he let go of her hand for a moment, and was very much the father I needed.
He never took her love for granted. In fact, I think he always suspected he was still a whisper away from her changing her mind, so he treated her like a Queen. As I grew into adulthood, I started to respect that he was consistently there for her, but I hated the way he allowed her to treat him. More often than not I found myself siding with him when in her regal manner she’d find a minor complaint. They would banter back and forth in a way that seemed argumentative, but eventually I learned that’s just how they communicated. He would play the perfect host, bartending and cooking elaborate meals. Pampering her in any manner needed. He had the sweetest voice, and knew all of the old Irish ballads. As he cooked, this wonderful baritone a Capella voice would gently bellow out Danny Boy or When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. He made her laugh, he was her intellectual equal, and was the only man I know that sang to her. I don’t think I saw how much he actually meant to her until he had his first heart attack. The roles reversed, and she catered to him, making sure he ate healthy and stopping him from smoking. The bickering was still there, but the shift in power was altered to a more even playing field. The heart attack scared her, probably more than it scared him.
When my kids came, he was the perfect grandfather to them. They would play in the kitchen as he cooked where he would take fish heads and make them into puppets, or chickens would become can-can dancers. He was Grampa Ralphie to them, and they loved their time with him.
So what does all of this have to do with forgiveness? When you love someone flawed to a fault, you tend to enable them. You find it difficult to say no to them, even when you see them dying before your very eyes. I don’t blame Ralph for my mother’s death – she would have drank her way there somehow with or without him. But he made it so very easy. He gilded that road of alcoholism with every sort of grain and grape she loved. He was the perfect bartender, knowing exactly how small she liked her ice cubes for this drink, or how much juice for that one. When the time came for others – myself – to step in and do an intervention, he hemmed and he hawed. When I said the alcohol had to go – he tried to barter with me, offering to hide it instead. He couldn’t tell her no, even when it was killing her.
Her death devastated him. He crumpled and old habits that she had tamped out, slowly started to show back up. He started smoking again. Drinking, while only slight, was there. Although they had been together for decades, against everyone’s suggestions and wishes, she refused to marry him. The homes they had shared together for fifteen years consisted mostly of her belongings. As the heirs to what was a miniscule estate, we could have gone in there and started to pick thru her things, taking the family valuables, and the artwork she had so painstakingly worked on, but this was his home. So we left it alone. When her ashes became available, he pleaded with me to take them temporarily, until he felt stronger. My mother had abhorred having her picture taken and the very few I had were cherished. So taking the heavy urn of ashes and the only real picture I had of her, I brought it to him. It was only temporary until my brother and I could figure out what to do with her ashes. He cried as he was want to do, but this was different. There was a small sense of joy there too as he set the picture in front of the urn.
Spending time with him back then was hard. His grief seemed to pull the bandage of my own healing right off, every single time I saw him. I hated to see him unhappy, but I wasn’t equipped emotionally to deal with it. I’d bring the kids over to spend time with him, but little by little I pulled back. I found that like many men, he was absolutely lost without a woman in his life. Soon I came over to find another woman sitting in my mother’s chair, sitting at my mother’s table, gushing over my mother’s grandchildren. It was simply too much. I couldn’t fault him for the void he was so desperately trying to fill, but I also couldn’t stomach watching it. Our contact was mostly by phone from that point on. Even that was limited.
One day, maybe a year later, I got a call from him. He was moving. That weekend. Texas I think, for a job. I was panicked because this seemed so sudden. We quickly headed over there, and the level of disgust and rage I felt – I can dredge that feeling up in my chest to this day. A half of a dozen strangers, complete barflies, were pawing over my mother’s things, some already eyeing the antique school desks. A woman had her children in my mother’s room, reading my mother’s childhood books, with a familiarity that told me this was a common occurrence. It was chaos and I couldn’t ask him specifically where certain things were. He promised he had packed everything up in boxes for me. As I snarled at one man who was estimating how much he could get for the antiques, I tried to find out where are the ashes, Ralph? But it was too much. Maybe they were in the boxes he packed. He also had a storage unit for everything else, so I could go there if they weren’t packed. We took all of the boxes home and I again started the grieving process all over.
The boxes I never understood. One held a small number of my mother’s artwork. Maybe a quarter of it, if that. The other boxes simply held more boxes. Empty ones. Old gift boxes my mother had held onto, that should have just been trashed. No sign of the photograph. No sign of the ashes. None of the family heirlooms. I panicked. The phone was disconnected and he had moved. I had to wait for that call from him.
It became apparent after some time he wasn’t going to contact me. The panic hardened into this small hard ball right in the center of my chest. I rarely thought of him, but when I did, this wash of anger and near hatred would spill out from me, starting in my chest and spreading everywhere. My mother’s ashes! My mother’s artwork! The other stuff? The heirlooms? It was a big deal for years. It was a big deal because it would have been a big deal to her. After time, that became stuff to me. Stuff lost. Stuff she would have been angered to see gone, but stuff nevertheless. I’d google him from time to time, wondering if I would come up with a death index, telling me he had died in Texas. Nothing. I rarely remembered the good stuff about him, because I couldn’t forgive. I couldn’t let go.
Yesterday was Mother’s Day. As I recalled her, I recalled him too. I decided to google him, and immediately came across a hit. I clicked it, and there he was. Smiling in the apartment he shared with my mother in El Segundo in 1990. His arm around a red head I had never seen. A daughter I had heard vaguely about. He had died earlier, two weeks to the day and this was his daughters memorial to him. I was shocked. Not at his death, that he had lived so much longer than I assumed. 15 miles from me, for ten years. Texas either never happened, or wasn’t long lived. He only made it five years without my mother’s care before he ended up in a nursing home himself.
I waited for that ball of anger to start and nothing. Not even a sizzle or a pop. I figured it was because I numb over the news, but as the day went on, I couldn’t have forced the anger if I wanted. I didn’t care anymore. Not in a resigned way, but in a forgiving way. Maybe he needed those ashes more than I did. For the first time I realized that the urn of gravelly stuff didn’t embody her spirit. It was just the remnants of her shell. It didn’t matter who had her last. I have a few pieces of her artwork, why do I care about the rest?
It’s sad that it took death, but I think I have finally forgiven Ralph.