Though it has been more than twenty-five years since my brother’s death, I still remember that morning as if it were yesterday. I see in slow motion those first moments when we found out my twenty-two-year-old brother, Gary, had been murdered: Answering the phone. Handing it to my mother. Her collapsing. My father’s stricken face. The scene is etched in my memory like a permanent scar.
My brother was a musician who made his living as a drummer in a rock band. A true child of the sixties, Gary wore his hair long, lived each day with the belief that all men were his brothers, and preferred to “make love, not war.”
The details we received about the night he died were sketchy. He was killed in a small town in West Virginia, by someone he had once called a friend. The young man and my brother, who were housemate, had argued about something. When the discussion got heated, Gary, who never was one for fighting, said he didn’t want to argue and went upstairs to bed.
We’ve never gotten a true picture of what happened after that. What we do know is this: the young man, high on some substance that was a frequent companion of that lifestyle, either fought with Gary and stabbed him in the neck or crept up on him as he slept and cut his throat. In either case, the results were the same.
The call that changed our lives forever came early in the morning on March 7, 1975. It was the state police calling to tell us my brother had died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Over the next few days funeral arrangements were made and relatives arrived. I was fourteen at the time, the youngest in a family of eight, which in one horrific instant was reduced to seven.
What I remember most is watching my mother. After the call came, she walked all over our three-story house wringing her hands and crying, repeating the serenity prayer over and over. She seemed to be searching for something, and many years later when I asked her what it was, she thought for a moment and then said, “I think I was looking for your brother.”
I also watched my mother the night of the wake. I followed her everywhere, needing to be near her. Not many words were spoken between us. What possibly could be said?
I was standing in the vestibule of the funeral home when the funeral director told my mother that she had a telephone call in the office. She looked a bit puzzled but followed him to the phone. I followed her.
After listening to her speak for a few minutes, I had a pretty good idea who the person on the other end was. After she hung up, she confirmed my suspicions and relayed the entire conversation. What she told me changed the way I have viewed life ever since.
The woman calling was the mother of the young man who killed my brother. They lived in another state. She didn’t know us and had never met anyone in our family. But she found it within her to track down my mother and tell her how sorry she was for what happened. She said her heart went out to my mom and that she would pray for our family.
What my mother said to her amazes me to this day. She didn’t curse this woman for brining someone into the world who had taken the life of her child. She didn’t vent all the rage and pain she must have been feeling on the mother of the man who had murdered her son. She did not thank her politely for calling but reject her apology, telling her she would need time before she would be able to even think about forgiveness.
Instead, my mother said, “My heart goes out to you. I now know where my son is every night. I know he is at piece and will come to no more harm. I will never again have to worry whether he’s cold or sick or needs me. Your pain with your son is just beginning. I will keep you both in my prayers.”
They exchanged a few more words, and then my mother hung up the phone and went back to the foot of the casket to accept condolences from those who had come to pay their respects to her son. As young as I was, I knew I had just witnessed something rare and beautiful.
The woman had the courage to reach out a hand to my mother, and my mother had the graciousness to accept it. These two women, both engulfed in sorrow, showed compassion such as I have rarely seen since. To this day, I am awed by the woman’s courage in apologizing to my mother and humbled by my mother’s unhesitating mercy in forgiving the unforgivable.
When the young man’s trial was taking place and people were encouraging my mother to fly to West Virginia to make sure the killer got what was coming to him, my mother’s heart remained the same. She said she would crawl to West Virginia if it would bring Gary back, but since it wouldn’t, she saw no reason to spend her energy making sure someone else suffered.
I don’t remember my mother ever lecturing me on the need to forgive others, even when we believe that what they’ve done is unforgivable. Instead, in a way no words could have, she showed me the need for – and the power of – forgiveness by demonstrating this truth.
I am now a grown woman with grown children of my own. With each passing year, I am more aware of the incredible lesson of forgiveness I witnessed that night. Whenever I hear someone recite a talk of why something that someone has done to them is unforgivable, I remember.
My mother is seventy-five years old. She has fourteen grandchildren and eighteen great-grandchildren. I’m sure, if asked, she would say she has never accomplished anything great in her life, never done anything particularly special. But I would disagree. Although my mother received no awards and no newspaper headlines for what she did, she is a hero nonetheless. And I wonder if it is not these extraordinary acts of forgiveness and kindness by ordinary people that change the world for the better for the rest of us. I know it did for me.
by Mary Long