As I walked into the church I knew I was not welcome. My mother’s last dying wish was that I was not to be present at her funeral. My only wish was to pay my respects to the woman who gave birth to me and who gave me the opportunity to have the life I have lived.
A life that was lived despite her - not because of her.
It was the last in a long line of cruel blows, dealt as both a child and an adult.
As the eulogy was read, I listened as my life was erased. I did not exist. My mother had 3 daughters, with no mention of me or my sons. I wondered, and still do, what could a child have done to make their mother feel so much contempt for a child they gave birth to?
My first crime, it would seem, was looking like my father, having his mannerisms, being his son!
She had had a turbulent relationship with him which ended when I was 5yrs. Her mental health was greatly affected by that or some previous trauma, (who can tell?) and as a 5yr-old growing up in the first years of conflict in Northern Ireland - it wasn’t easy.
When my father left, I was sad as any 5yr-old would be at losing a parent. The unfortunate truth was: that was not permitted, and any grief I felt had to be subdued for fear of being beaten for it.
I tried to be the man of the house but there was no room in the house for a man, and there was no room for me. I was kicked out in my late teens and started my own life but I always looked back and wondered what had I done to invite such disgust.
I reached out and invited her to my first wedding, only to be told she was busy. I tried to reconnect when my first wife became pregnant with our first child. We had a very stilted meeting and she was invited to see the son I was so proud of, only to not turn up. My rejection became his and so the pain continued. She was invited to his christening, and that of my second son - by my third child I had given up.
And so as I sat beside my three sons in the church watching their faces in disbelief that a grandmother that they never knew had treated them so badly. And the question that I had asked all my childhood returned. “How could she do that?”
Well she could, and she did, and her passing meant I would never have the answer that I needed.
So began the quest for forgiveness. She had never forgiven my father for whatever he had done and had passed her pain to me. I had to break the cycle but it wasn’t easy.
I tried to understand, I tried to put myself in her place. It must have been difficult bringing up 4 children on her own, but then even as a 5yr-old I knew this, because she reminded me that her life would be better if she had put me in a children’s home and that I should be grateful she didn’t. I get it that it was difficult. I started working on Saturdays at the age of 10yrs to help lighten the financial load - a work ethic that has stayed with me all my life.
Life is hard and it can be harsh, but a parent’s number one role in life is to care for their children - to protect them from harm - not to be the harm. Needless to say, this is not the full story and in some way there has to be a possible outcome - an outcome of forgiveness and acceptance and that is where I am now.
As I drove to work I repeated in my head “I forgive you mum, I forgive you” over and over again in the vain hope that it would stick, but I found myself saying “I forgive you mum you hateful old bitch.”
No sign of that forgiveness kicking in.
And so the quest to forgive has started. I have spoken to her in my head so many times - asking her why, imagining her positive response but yet forgiveness never came.
In truth, I have come to learn that there can be no understanding of why. Who knows her reasons and, at this point, it doesn’t really matter to me. What matters most is that I don’t continue the cycle - that I let it go, that I don’t permit her pain to pass to me - that it ends here. And that I come to terms with the fact that life can be harsh and we all have our baggage, and we all must forgive those who do not feel remorse, not for them but for us, and not only us but for those we love. My mother may have been bitter and twisted but I refuse to live her legacy. In its place I choose to leave my own legacy: to look after my own children in a way they know they are loved and that hopefully I can create in them a new legacy that they can pass on to their children.
Forgiveness is not about those that harm us, it is about us not letting their cruelty become ours. It’s about not allowing ourselves to become the very thing we struggle against. It’s about learning that the path in front of us is more important than the path behind us and that we must make the most of every day. That is something we cannot do if we hold onto the hurt of the past. Forgiveness is hard but it is the only way we can live a full and meaningful life.
David Toney Teacher/Author