Endorsements for I Thought We’d Never Speak Again
"I Thought We'd Never Speak Again provides crucial guidance for anyone who needs inspiration, courage, and guidance in making peace with troubled relationships. Davis' powerful stories teach us that by bridging the separations between us, we heal what is fragmented within us. I recommend this book with my whole heart. It changed my life."
--Charlotte Sophia Kasl, Ph.D. Author of Women, Sex, and Addiction
and If the Buddha Dated: Finding Love on a Spiritual Path
"Laura Davis has a real knack for putting her finger on the pulse of what people are struggling with and what they need to hear. With this groundbreaking book on reconciliation, she has done it again. With grace and clarity she brings us a critical message: that making peace in our own lives and in the larger world needs to be first and foremost on both our personal and national agenda."
--Marilyn Van Derbur, Former Miss America and National Speaker
for Children's Rights
"As we hunger for authentic expressions of peace and reconciliation, Laura Davis has given us a true gift. She offers pathways for us to let go of pain, bitterness, fear, and even hatred. She presents a continuum of reconciliation that goes far beyond simple answers and allows for the individual needs and cultural context of the involved parties. Davis eloquently presents her message that attaining peace in our lives and in the larger world must be first anchored within our own personal journey of healing. Few authors have addressed the issues of forgiveness and reconciliation with such clarity, compassion, and sensitivity."
--Mark Umbreit, Ph.D., Founding Director, Center for Restorative
Justice and Peacemaking, University of Minnesota, School of Social Work
“With prodigious love and wisdom, Laura Davis teaches us new ways to view and resolve a wide array of ruptured relationships so that we can come out whole, perhaps for the first time. She describes excruciating struggles to find love and self after interpersonal fractures ranging from painful misunderstandings to criminal assaults to ethnic wars. Ms. Davis shows us ways to reconcile with our own fear and pain and rage, if not always with our adversaries. I Thought We’d Never Speak Again is a gift of the heart, full of wisdom, courage, and hope. I highly recommend it.
--David C. Hall, M.D. Family Psychiatrist and Author of Stop Arguing
and Start Understanding: Eight Steps to Solving Family Conflicts
"Leave it to Laura Davis, who opened a whole generation with The Courage to Heal, to once again give us what we need—a book about how we come home to each other and ourselves. I want to buy this for everyone I know. And Davis has presented this healing with such compassion, clarity, warmth, and good solid prose that this book is unbeatable. No one can turn from its truth."
--Natalie Goldberg, Author of Thunder and Lightning and The Essential
"Laura Davis understands that in order to deeply touch the human heart, you must touch it with relevant story. It is a rare adult who has not come to know the bitter pain of estranged, bruised. or broken relationships. Davis provides a vehicle for giving those stories voice, never glossing the pain or suggesting panacea, but masterfully stitching them together and offering to us all a counterpane of comfort, a harbinger of hope."
--Dave Gustafson, M.A., R.C.C., Canadian pioneer in victim-offender
reconciliation and restorative justice
"If you have been hurt in a relationship and have unresolved pain, I encourage you to READ THIS BOOK. If you are a therapist or are in a position of nurturing the emotional well being of others, I encourage you to READ THIS BOOK. Whether your relationships are fraught with resentments or filled with love, this is a book not to be missed!"
--Robin Casarjian, Author, Forgiveness: A Bold Choice for A
Peaceful Heart , Director, The Lionheart Foundation, sponsor of The
National Emotional Literacy Project for Prisoners and Youth-at-Risk
“Anybody who has given up on the possibility of reconciliation should read this book. Davis builds a web of hope that human beings can indeed move on, even when relationships have been painful and very destructive.”
--Ron Kraybill, Professor, Conflict Transformation Program,
Eastern Mennonite University
"This positive, yet realistic guide to repairing broken relationships is a pleasure to read. It is filled with the compelling stories of real people weighing the risks and benefits of re-connecting with estranged loved ones before it is too late. They do so in a remarkable variety of ways, some with cautious trepidation, others with relieved abandon. Laura Davis leads the pack, courageously modeling her own experience of reconciliation with her mother, after years of painful separation. I Thought We'd Never Speak Again inspires a deep understanding that although they can be hurtful, relationships are crucial to our human experience. I strongly recommend this book."
--Esther Giller, President and Director, Sidran Traumatic Stress Foundation
"The best books offer readers the tools they need to become better people. This one will surely inspire many to say, "I still care about you; let's try again."
--Mariah Burton Nelson, Author, The Unburdened Heart: Five Keys to
Forgiveness and Freedom
“Much anger, particularly at people we once loved, is unnecessary, destructive, and so much more self-destructive than we realize. I Thought We’d Never Speak Again is a compelling, practical, and inspiring guide to reopening relationships that should not remain severed.”
--Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Author of The Book of Jewish Values and
"With warmth, humor, and sensitivity, Laura Davis teaches us personal and practical truths about healing painful, broken relationships. She does not offer simplistic answers, nor tell us that there is only one way to reconcile. Her book is a tremendous gift, and will change the way we think about reconciliation in our personal lives, in the criminal justice process, and in the greater world."
--Greg D. Richardson, Restorative Justice Institute
"In order to practice nonviolence and peacemaking, we must first understand the principles of forgiveness and reconciliation. Laura Davis illuminates the suffering and losses which keep us isolated from each other, as well as the steps required to mend broken relationships. Her book gives us the courage and hope we need to confront the fears that keep us from living full and healthy lives."
--Dot Walsh, Global Peace Coordinator and Peace Chaplain
The Peace Abbey
"I Thought We'd Never Speak Again will be useful to anyone who wants to use dialogue and reconciliation as a healing path. Davis' narratives reveal the complexity of personal transformation and the challenges of reconciliation with individuals who have caused great harm. Persons seeking such transformation need boundaries, time, and most of all, choices. Davis' book shows us that there are multiple doors through which even the most damaged and estranged individuals can find a healing path toward reconciliation."
--Gordon Bazemore, Ph.D., Director, Community Justice Institute,
Florida Atlantic University
"A most helpful and practical book about finding the stepping stones of releasing the past and healing the hole in our hearts so we can move on in our lives."
--Gerald Jampolsky, M.D., Author, Forgiveness: The Greatest Healer of All
“This is a book of enormous personal and social significance for a society steeped in conflict and alienation. It is a deeply moving and spiritually uplifting work that you will want to give to family, friends, and colleagues alike."
--Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D. Family therapist and author of Mediating Child Custody Disputes
"I Thought We'd Never Speak Again is an impressive, deep, and thorough guide to relationship healing. It is filled with insights, tools, and a wide variety of poignant stories that help readers figure out whether, when, and how to reconcile troubled relationships. Laura Davis writes with heart and soul and offers a path to self-love, compassion for others, community, and inner peace."
--Wendy Maltz, M.S.W., Author of The Sexual Healing Journey
"Congratulations, Laura! You have taken an in-depth look at a timely and difficult subject. This book will be an inspiration to all those who read it."
--Dr. Eileen R. Borris, Psychologist and Founder of Peace Initiatives
Take a Tour of:
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Path of Reconciliation…………….…………………1
PART ONE: PREPARING THE GROUND
Chapter 1: Growing Through the Pain: Estrangement, Time, and Maturity…………………………………………………………………………12
• The Pain of Estrangement • The Roots of Estrangement • One Disappointment at a Time • In Order to Reconcile, the Wound Can’t Be Too Fresh • Growing Bitter, Growing Sweet • Life Shapes Us • Rachel Thomas: Flying to My Sister’s Side • Death as a Teacher • The Lessons Children Bring • Maturity Allows Us to Embrace Paradox • To Everything, There Is a Season
Chapter 2: Building a Self: The Importance of Autonomy….……..39
• The Importance of Boundaries • When Injuries Are Unforgivable • Dana Roper: Returning the Gift He Gave Me • When It’s Time to Move On • Kathleen Ryan: When Memories Are Disputed • Establishing Terms of Engagement • The Difference Between Reconciliation and Capitulation
Chapter 3: Finding Clarity: The Task of Discernment……….……..68
• What’s Happening Now? • What’s My Role In This Estrangement? • What’s the Bigger Picture? • Bridging the Generation Gap • What Is the Other Person Capable Of? • The Changes Were Going to Have to Happen Inside of Me • What Kind of Person Do I Want to Be? • Sharon Tobin: Compassion for a Dying Parent • Does This Relationship Warrant Reconciliation? • A Personal Decision • Sara and Tom Brown: Facing a Broken Marriage • Believing That People Can Change • Different Circumstances, Different Choices • How Close Do I Want to Be? • To Everything, There Is a Season • Elizabeth Menkin: She Owes Us a Life • From Discernment to Action
PART TWO: MARSHALLING YOUR STRENGTH
Chapter 4: Taking the First Steps: Gathering Courage………….120
• Gary Geiger: Facing the Man Who Shot Me • The Courage to Face Uncertainty • Wendy Richter: Sometimes It’s Enough for Things to Be Just a Little Bit Better • Fear Doesn’t Have to Stop You • What Am I Afraid Of? • Taking the First Step • Slow but Steady Wins the Race • Taking Risks Gradually • The Courage to Face Yourself • Kay Kessler: Growing a New Relationship • The Courage to Change • The Myth of the Cowardly Lion
Chapter 5: Persistence Over Time: The Importance of Determination……………………………………………………………….154
• Being Resolute In Your Goals • Beth Tanzman: I Just Had to Find Him • Responses and Rejoinders • Miriam Gladys: Making Amends to My Children • Seeking Help Where You Can Find It • Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff • Bruce Stevens: Creating Détente in the Family • Expecting the Process to Have Ups and Downs • Deciding to Let Go of the Past • Kate Gillen: Fighting Over My Father’s Will • Creating a New Future Together • Establishing New Ways to Connect • Bridging Distance, Getting Closer • Honoring Everybody Involved • Spiritual Strength Leads to Determination • Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix: Victims of Both Sides of the Gun • Reconciliation Is a Choice
PART THREE: OPENING THE HEART
Chapter 6: Communication That Furthers Closeness: The Role of Listening and Honesty…………………………………………….……..211
• It Was Better Not to Talk About It • Barbara Newman: E-Mailing My Brother After 30 Years • The Relationship Between Honesty and Discernment • Choosing to Focus on What You Have Now • Mindfulness and Honesty • Paul Howerton: Deciding Not to Talk to My Father • Hearing My Mother’s Story • We Needed to Talk About It • Kate Howard: Creating a New History • An Opening of Doors • Learning to Listen • Shawnee Undell: Receiving My Mother’s Story • The Marriage of Authenticity and Kindness • Richard Hoffman: Half the House • Another Profound Truth • Melodye Feldman: Bringing Palestinian and Israeli Girls Together • When Honesty Changes the World
Chapter 7: Recognizing Our Shared Humanity: Nurturing Compassion….……………………………………………………………...261
• Discernment with Heart • Antonio de la Peña: Washing My Mother’s Hair • Compassion Begins with Acceptance • Learning to Live with a Broken Heart • Facing Mistakes with Love • Compassion Comes From a Place of Wholeness • Sometimes Just a Little Is Enough • Compassion as a Choice • Mark Levy: Understanding “The Sorrow of War” • Bringing Together the Ultimate Enemies • Armand Volkas: Bringing Children of Holocaust Survivors and Children of Nazis Together • Compassion Moves Out Into the World
PART FOUR: MAKING AMENDS
Chapter 8: Taking Responsibility: The Role of Humility and Accountability……………………………………………………………....300
• The Price of Pride • Acknowledging Your Own Weaknesses • Taking Stock, Looking Within • Celia Sommer: Letting Go of Being Wronged • Learning to Apologize • Pete Salmansohn: Choosing to Get Close Again • The Accountability Continuum • The Courage to Admit a Wrong • Franklin Carter: A Violent Man Changes His Life • The Healing Power of Accountability • Accountability Leads to Self-Respect
Chapter 9: The Question of Forgiveness…………………………….327
• Forgiveness as Something You Work At • Forgiveness as a Spiritual Gift • Forgiveness as Something That Requires Accountability • Rabbi Steven Fink: Responding Compassionately to Hate • Forgiveness as Something That Happens Unilaterally • The Trouble with Pseudo-Forgiveness • Resolution Is Possible Without Forgiveness • Vicki Malloy: Rebuilding a Relationship with My Perpetrator • Are Some Things Unforgivable? • A Personal Decision
PART FIVE: FINDING PEACE
Chapter 10: When Reconciliation Is Impossible: The Task of Letting Go……………………………………………………………………………...360
• Accepting That the Relationship Is Over • Letting Go When You Don’t Know Why the Relationship Ended • Peggy O’Neill: It’s In Her Hands Now • Letting Go Is a Process • Helen Meyers: I Can’t Force Him to Open the Door • Leaving the Porch Light On • Pam Leeds: Compassion From Afar • The Opposite of Estrangement
Chapter 11: When We Meet Again: The Benefits of Reconciliation………………………………………………………..……..380
• Enjoying the Pleasures of Recovered Love • Reweaving the Web of Community • Reconciliation Leads to Peace • Reconciliation Rekindles Optimism • A Deep Sense of Peace
© Laura Davis, 2002. From I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation by Laura Davis (HarperCollins, April, 2002).
Take a Tour of:
Introduction: The Path of Reconciliation
“It is not impossibilities which fill us with the deepest despair, but possibilities which we have failed to realize.”
--Robert Mallett, Deputy Secretary, Department of Commerce
When we lose a relationship that has been precious to us, the fabric of life is torn. Whether the end comes suddenly in an explosion, inevitably after a long, painful struggle, or by simply petering out, we feel a sense of loss. Even when our predominant feeling is relief at no longer being engaged in struggle, there is still an empty place where the other person used to be. As one woman put it, “When I was estranged from my father, it was like having a rotten tooth. It gnawed at me all the time.”
This book is about relationships that have been torn apart—and the many paths to reconciling them. Whether we are dealing with a brother we no longer speak to, an adult child we wish we knew, a parent we want to make peace with, or a friendship gone sour, there is a path, which we can use to repair—or make peace with—relationships that have been painfully estranged.
What Enables Reconciliation to Occur?
I began my research hoping to pinpoint the steps people need to take in order to transform blame, alienation, and bitterness into compassion, acceptance, and love. Early on, I discovered that there are no hard and fast rules about reconciliation. No matter how much I tried, I could not delineate an orderly series of stages that would lead to rapprochement. In fact, every time I thought I had pinned down some essential truth about reconciliation, an exception would appear.
I began with several working assumptions. I believed that reconciliation necessitated taking things slowly, so people could gradually ease back into trusting. But then I talked to Linnie Smith who, after a ten-minute phone call, re-embraced her brother wholly and completely. I assumed that reconciliation could only occur when people openly talked about the differences that had torn them apart, only to find numerous examples of people who found their way back to each other not by discussing the past, but by carefully avoiding potential minefields. In families where incest and other heinous crimes occurred, I presumed that reconciliation could only occur if the perpetrator took responsibility for what he or she had done. Then I talked to Kathleen Ryan, who made peace with parents who continue to deny that she was ever abused.
Again and again, my assumptions about reconciliation were shot down, to be replaced by a growing sense of respect and admiration for the diversity of strategies people use to make peace with relationships that once seemed irreconcilable. It became clear that there was no objective lens through which I could judge the progress of someone’s reconciliation—that the only measure of success was the emotional integrity of the solution for the people involved.
What I consistently observed in people who had achieved satisfying levels of reconciliation was a particular constellation of inner qualities: the maturity, autonomy, discernment, courage, determination, honesty, compassion, humility, and accountability that one or both people brought to the table determined the depth and quality of their reconciliation. These themes, which overlap and influence each other, manifest in an amazing variety—depending on the people and circumstances involved.
The Reconciliation Continuum
The reconciliation continuum presented here encompasses four possible outcomes. The first—the most coveted and the hardest to achieve—is reconciliation that is deep and transformative, in which intimacy is established (or re-established), past hurts are resolved, and both people experience closeness, satisfaction, and renewed growth in the relationship. The second outcome, which is far more common, is a relationship in which one person changes his or her frame of reference and expectations, so that the perception of the relationship—and its possibilities—opens up whether or not the other person makes significant changes. In the third outcome, much about the relationship remains unresolved and ambivalent feelings persist, yet both people “agree to disagree,” and establish ground rules that enable them to have a limited, but cordial relationship. The final outcome is realizing that no viable relationship is possible with the other person, and that our only option is to find resolution within ourselves. Although this alternative is not the one that most people would choose, it too can bring peace.
Reconciliation stories are always works-in-progress. Frequently, when I asked people to review their stories months after our initial interview, they informed me that the ending had already changed. We often achieve one level of reconciliation—figuring out how to have a limited, social relationship, for instance—only to have things shift later, enabling a deeper connection. Other times, there are reversals; a setback undermines the tentative trust that has been built, and relations drift back toward estrangement.
With human relationships, nothing is ever final. We cannot be sure how things will end until both people are dead. There are always surprises, unexpected twists, moments of grace, and at times, unfathomable tragedies. If we approach reconciliation with an intention to stay open and see what is possible, there are few limits to what might happen.
Big Reconciliations, Little Reconciliations
This book is filled with stories of everyday estrangements and reconciliations: friends who stopped speaking over a misunderstanding at the movies, siblings who fought over a will, children who made peace with parents they hadn’t spoken to in years.
Mixed with these stories are more dramatic tales—victims of drunk drivers facing the people whose actions devastated their lives, children of Holocaust survivors meeting with children of Nazis, Palestinian and Israeli teenagers learning to get along. These stories are deeply inspiring and demonstrate that the principles of reconciliation are consistent whether we are dealing with family members or the larger world.
I have also included stories where attempts at reconciliation led to small, positive changes rather than major transformations. One of the women I interviewed, Wendy Richter, had one such experience. When I sent her story for her to review, she e-mailed me back:
So many times it is the phenomenal recoveries, the great emotional stories, the magnificent changes, which are told. But each of us can only make a few such breakthroughs in our lives. However, the rest of the time we shouldn’t experience the failure to be miraculous as a failure. Even a few tiny steps forward represent progress.
Telling Both Sides of the Story
This is an extremely subjective book. I interviewed more than a hundred people about their experiences of estrangement and reconciliation, and in most cases, I only spoke with one of the people involved in the relationship.
Intentionally, I made no attempt to tell both sides of the story, to be fair, or to objectively portray reality. I chose not to question the veracity of people’s stories, the accuracy of their memories, or the process they went through in seeking reconciliation. Yet despite the fact that each person was free to tell the story as he or she wanted it to be told, all of these stories reflect compassion, humility, and a sincere desire to make things right. No one I spoke to was looking for retribution or vengeance. On the contrary, people were extremely careful to ensure that sharing their stories would further the reconciliations in their lives. No one wanted to endanger the fragile relationships they had worked so carefully to rebuild.
How I Came to Write This Book
Fifteen years ago, when Ellen Bass and I began writing The Courage to Heal, I interviewed more than a hundred women who had been sexually abused. I sat with them for long hours in their living rooms as they poured out stories of humiliation, brutality, betrayal, and cruelty. I listened to their grief, anger, anguish, and incredible determination to fight back and survive. I cried with them. I raged with them. I understood them. For I, too, was a survivor.
For ten years of my life, the fact that I had been sexually abused was the principle around which I organized my existence. It was as if my whole life had sprung from that one bitter seed.
During this period I was alienated from my mother’s side of the family. My rule was simple: if you believed me, you were in. If you didn’t, you were out. In my polarized world, there were good people (mostly, those who had been hurt like me) and bad people (the pedophiles, non-protective parents, and those who didn’t believe me). I surrounded myself with people who supported me; I found safety in a culture of my peers.
My relationship with my mother was particularly affected. It had been rocky; now it was a shambles. She was devastated by my revelations, furious at my public exposure of our family, and rendered powerless by her inability to shift the course of events. I, on the other hand, felt betrayed, self-righteous, and angry. Although I longed to be close to her, I wanted to do so only on my terms. If she wasn't going to believe me, I wanted nothing to do with her.
There things stood—at an impasse—for years. I grieved for my mother and my lost relatives, certain we would never speak again.
Fortunately, that prognosis was wrong. Slowly, then with gathering momentum, the walls gave way. Not in a dramatic turn of events, where I recanted or my family believed me, but because I was able to change my perspective and so were they.
As the healing process began to bear fruit, sexual abuse stopped being the center of my life. In my mid-thirties, I met my life partner, helped raise a teenage stepson, and had two babies of my own. My life, once filled with angry rebellion, was softened by the daily routines of domestic life. I grew into a person my relatives could recognize, respond to, and respect. I relaxed my expectations of them, accepted their limitations, and learned to appreciate their unique gifts. I stopped putting them on the spot and began swapping recipes instead. I sent out birth announcements and photographs; I made long distance phone calls and small talk. With small, measured steps, and with conscious intent, we gradually wove our way back into each other’s lives.
The Role of Memory In Reconciliation
Our potential for reconciliation is inextricably linked to the way we remember our lives. Yet no two people, sharing the same experience, will ever remember it in exactly the same way. Early in my research, I spoke with Rachel Thomas about her estrangement and reconciliation with her sister, Vivian. Rachel related their story powerfully and with conviction, although she readily acknowledged that her grasp on dates and sequences was spotty. When I wrote up the story and showed it to her, Rachel assured me that it accurately represented the truth of her experience.
Several months later, Vivian came to town and agreed to meet me as well. When we sat down to talk, I asked her the same questions I had asked Rachel, and heard a completely different, often contradictory, story. Both Rachel and Vivian had strong emotional memories of the culminating event that had "been the last straw,” yet each sister remembered an entirely different event. Although Rachel and Vivian agreed that the big rift between them had occurred in the wake of their mother's death, from that point on, their stories diverged completely. In fact, when they sat down later to compare notes about each other’s versions of "the truth," neither Rachel nor Vivian had any memory of the central event her sister had recounted!
I was amazed at how few similarities their stories held, and also how many erroneous (and often damaging) assumptions the sisters had made about one another. Yet beneath their conflicting accounts, the emotional reality of their stories resonated with a similar truth. As one of the sisters said later, "Even though the events are murky, the feelings we each had were real." Both sisters felt judged and criticized, and both acknowledged feeling judgmental and critical, yet neither had had the skills necessary to bridge the divergent paths their lives were taking. These common threads wove their disparate stories together.
If I had the opportunity to interview the other "half" of each estranged pair in this book, I am convinced that many of the results would be similar. Each of us builds our life story around shared events that are experienced differently depending on who we were, how old we were, how much power we had when an event occurred, and manifold other factors.
Novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz once wrote, “Memory is a story we make up from snatches of the past.” Memory is not a photographic rendering of our history; it is a collage of images, feelings, perspectives, and fragments that we piece together to form a coherent perception of our past. We create stories about our lives and as we tell those stories to ourselves—and to others—they become embedded in our sense of personal history. We claim that history and use it to make sense of our lives. Whether or not it corresponds to anyone else’s version of the same events, it becomes an integral part of our own self-identity. As the poet Anne Sexton once said, “It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.”
Even within individuals, memory is not fixed. If you had asked me to tell you my life story when I was 20 or 30 or 40, you would have heard three different versions of "my life." With each new decade, I would have emphasized different themes, starred different players, and focused on different struggles.
Ironically, it is this very phenomenon that enables many reconciliations to occur. Old hurts, which seemed huge and insurmountable at one time, often recede to the back burner after a number of years. As we gather new experiences in life, we frequently view the old ones from a different perspective.
When we are open to the changing landscape, our lives can expand in ways that previously seemed impossible.
The Power of Reconciliation
Throughout this book, you will meet ordinary people who responded to difficult relationships with resourcefulness and integrity. Time and time again, I have been moved by their courage and inspired by the loving intention with which they approached reconciliation. Hearing their stories has galvanized me to look deeply within. In the past year, I have explored my automatic reactions when faced with conflict, questioned my need to be right, and asked myself why it is so hard for me to apologize. I have become less defensive, more able to listen, more willing to acknowledge my part in a relationship gone awry. I have grown to appreciate more deeply than ever how precious close relationships are. I want to preserve them and repair them, and whenever possible, avoid throwing them away.
I am grateful to the women and men who so generously shared their pain, their struggles, and their triumphs. I hope that their voices touch you as they have touched me, inspiring you to undertake reconciliation journeys of your own.
© Laura Davis, 2002. From I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation by Laura Davis (HarperCollins, April, 2002).
Take a Tour of:
Excerpt From Chapter 1: Estrangement, Time and Maturity
Death as a Teacher
Death echoes through many reconciliation stories. When people die or we go through our own life-threatening crises, it can make us realize that we may never get another chance to make peace with the people who have mattered in our lives. Mindy, a sixth-grade schoolteacher, was about to have a hysterectomy, and there was a chance that cancer was involved. A week before her surgery, she made a list of all the people with whom she had unresolved business; it included her sister, two friends, an ex-lover, and a former boss. Systematically, she contacted them all.
The surgery put me in touch with the fact that my life could end tomorrow—or today. We only have this short opportunity to love people, and I no longer wanted to waste my time holding onto grudges and resentments.
Even when a relationship has not been stretched all the way to the breaking point, a crisis can be a catalyst toward improved relations. Jeannie and her mother were both obstinate about their beliefs. Whether they were discussing a book, a news event, or something that had happened in the family, they each believed that they were right and that the other person was wrong. Every time they got together, they ended up in a major fight.
Two years ago, when Jeannie’s mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, Jeannie stepped in to care for her.
As I bathed my mother and changed her Depends, it felt like the circle was completing itself. My mother had changed my diapers and bathed me as an infant, and now, at the end of her life, I was doing the same for her. As I witnessed her vulnerability, I was able to let go of all of the grievances I’d held against her.
Our reconciliation was essentially tied to the knowledge that time was running out. She was going to die, and after that, there would be no more chances. Knowing that allowed the love that had been swimming below the surface of our relationship for years, to rise.
Jeannie was fortunate. She had the opportunity to take care of her mother, a mother who wanted her care, and the willingness to do what was required. Yet even when direct efforts at reconciliation remain impossible, one person’s death sometimes opens the door to healing with someone else.
My friend Nona grew up wild and rebellious in southeast Texas. When we met, I was nineteen and she was a spirited twenty-four-year-old single mother, completely estranged from her family. We met in a spiritual community devoted to becoming enlightened—which we eventually left to explore the bigger world. For five years Nona and I did everything together—we worked together, lived together, drank together, got stoned together, and traveled together. Being older and more sophisticated, Nona taught me to be bold and outrageous in the world. But then we had a huge fight and stopped speaking. Neither of us thought we would ever be friends again.
Over the next four years, Nona’s mother died of a pulmonary embolism, her father died of emphysema, one of her closest friends died from AIDS-related complex, and another from breast cancer. Their deaths affected her profoundly. Years later, Nona recalled:
Up until that point, I’d always had the attitude, “Don’t mess with me!” I was very tough, well defended, mean, and impatient. I was kind of like a dog that’d been beaten. If anybody reached out to pet me, I’d snap at them. I went through relationships like people go through jellybeans—I just chewed people up.
I was so grief-stricken at all the loss. I felt vulnerable and fragile. Maya and Dan had both died in their thirties. My mom and dad were dead—and ambivalent relationships are the hardest ones to lose. I saw that life is completely unpredictable and that love is all we’ve got. People being right or wrong didn’t seem to matter anymore. The people I loved suddenly became very precious to me.
After all of that dying, the problems that had driven Laura and me apart were just a blip on the screen compared to the love I felt for her. It became clear to me that having fights that drove people away from me was an indulgence I could no longer afford. So I contacted Laura, and we started rebuilding our friendship. That was fifteen years ago, and now we’re closer than we’ve ever been.
The Lessons Children Bring
At one end of the life cycle, death shapes and changes our lives. At the other, birth transforms us. When we become parents, we are changed irrevocably, and the impact of that change reverberates through every aspect of our lives. Relationships—resolved and unresolved—are re-examined, childhoods relived. In a visceral way, we have the opportunity to come to terms with the parenting we received or failed to receive, delineating the ways we want to emulate our parents and ways we want to differ. From our new vantage point, we can more accurately assess our assumptions about the people who raised us, because for the first time we truly understand the territory that comes with the job.
Becoming a parent also moves us up the generational ladder. Our primary role is no longer that of a son or daughter, but rather as a caregiver of the next generation. When we first hold our babies in awe and wonder, and begin to grasp the immense responsibility of nurturing a new, vulnerable human being, we understand in a whole new way the challenges our parents faced in caring for us. Whether they handled their responsibilities well or failed miserably, they too once held a tiny infant in their arms and probably vowed to do the best they could.
Most parents want to do well by their children. Even when circumstances, lack of experience, limited resources, or immaturity get in their way, parents usually imagine the best for their child. Phyllis, who was estranged from her parents for years, realized this soon after her daughter Caitlin was born.
When I was young and angry, I felt like my parents intended to hurt me. But once I became a parent, I saw just how many mistakes you can make in the name of being a good parent. Even when I do my best with Caitlin, I sometimes make gross errors. That gives me a lot more compassion for the mistakes my parents made with me.
Children often provide us with the impetus to reach out to estranged family members. People say, “I wanted an uncle for my children,” or “I want to know my grandchildren.” We are often willing to make changes for the sake of our children that we would not make for ourselves.
Marcus is a sculptor who works as an artist in the schools. He grew up in an athletic family that belittled his artistic talents. As a young man, he fled his rural home and moved to St. Paul, where he found new friends and creative inspiration. For the next fifteen years, he established himself as an artist and rarely spoke to his parents or his three brothers. Despite the recognition he was garnering as a sculptor, he still felt like a failure in their eyes.
At forty, Marcus married and had a daughter. Becoming Angie’s father opened up his world: "I spent years defending against the need to be close to people, but when Angie was born, the walls began to melt. I wanted Angie to have a sense of connection with blood family that I never had."
Maturity Allows Us to Embrace Paradox
Paradox is woven through the human experience. As the mother of young children, I experience it every day. Each morning, I walk into my children’s rooms and stand for a moment, filled with awe. As I watch the rise and fall of their fragile, narrow chests, I am filled with a love beyond any I ever imagined. An hour later when we are tussling over coats, boots and lunches, and are increasingly late for school, I feel trapped and angry, my rage ready to blow. Before I ever get to work and sit down to officially “begin my day,” I have experienced the full gamut of feelings that a person in love can have. I have never hated or loved so passionately before. It is only in the most intimate of relationships that we discover the best and worst we have to give.
When Molly Fisk began considering the possibility of reconciliation with her family, she made a list of all the things she had gotten from them that were good and all the things she had gotten that were bad. When she was done, there was a substantial list on both sides. The fact that those two realities could coexist was a revelation to her.
Holding both of those things in my mind simultaneously taught me that people aren’t all bad or all good. In my opinion, nobody’s a real monster. People may do monstrous things, but they can still have good qualities. Understanding this has been very important in my life.
Molly’s exercise reveals the complexity of human beings. The father who taught you to ride a bike could never hold down a job or keep a roof over your head. The brother who told wonderful stories tied you up with belts when your parents left you alone. Your mother, who lovingly sewed you shoes from the softest cowhide, screamed, “I hate you” one dark and rainy afternoon. The friend who made you laugh until you cried, spread rumors in the eighth grade cafeteria that you were having sex with the boy down the street. The enemy you were taught to hate and fear plays the violin so sweetly it breaks your heart.
As one man explained, "It's hard to speak of the violence and the tenderness in my family because there was so much of both."
Paradox is part and parcel of deeply knowing another human being, and it is at the heart of reconciliation. When we grow large enough to embrace our own faults and to honor the flawed humanity of another human being, we open the door to connection, integration, and love.
At sixty-seven, Carol had been estranged from her oldest son for twenty-two years over his refusal to come to his father’s funeral. Finally, she decided to lay her burden down.
There are certain unresolvable issues between my son and me, and I’ve gotten to the point where I'm comfortable letting them be. People evolve; people change. To hold him responsible for something that happened so many years ago is counterproductive when he’s grown and changed into someone else.
Maturity allows us to soften our stance, to relinquish absolute requirements, to accept another person’s failings, while at the same time acknowledging our own. Mature people learn to embrace relationships that are imperfect. As one man told me, “I love my daughter, but I don’t love everything about her.”
In his book, How to Forgive When You Can’t Forget, Charles Klein describes an exercise used by Rabbi Pesach Krauss, who worked as a chaplain at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York. In his work with cancer patients, Krauss held up a piece of paper with a single dot in the center, and asked his patients to describe what they saw. Many described only the dot, and when they did, he reminded them to notice all the white space on the page. “The dot,” he would tell them, “is the pain and suffering you are experiencing because of your cancer. And the white space is all that is good and precious in your life. By shifting your perspective, you can see how small and insignificant that dot is compared to the goodness of life.”
To Everything, There Is a Season
Gaining this sense of perspective takes time. No matter how much we want to let go of resentment and find compassion, we cannot force ourselves to grow. We can set the intention, lay the groundwork, and take the initial steps to heal, but we cannot will ourselves into a different state of consciousness.
Everything on earth has its season. In order to mature, we need the grounding life offers, the nourishment of people that we love, and the wisdom only time and distance can provide. By cultivating the qualities that help us grow sweet, rather than bitter, we can grow receptive to deep healing within ourselves and with the important people in our lives.
© Laura Davis, 2002. From I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation by Laura Davis (HarperCollins, April, 2002).
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