Stories of forgiveness

Four people choose different paths in their search for renewal

Stories of forgiveness

Four people choose different paths in their search for renewal
Illustrations by Hannah Agosta

Despite the divisions and the discord, this is still a different time, a new year, a season for reconsideration and renewal. This year, therefore, we offer stories of forgiving — tales of people who overcame betrayal, who received an unexpected gift of financial absolution, who decided to rekindle a brutally severed relationship. And a story about why there sometimes is no path to forgiveness — and perhaps should not be.

To forgive is to reach beyond the storms of the moment. Jesus forgave unconditionally from the cross, but also in far less dire circumstances. Pope John Paul II went to see his would-be assassin and forgave him. Rep. John Lewis, a black man who was beaten and insulted in the civil rights movement, argued that George Wallace, the surly segregationist Alabama politician, deserved forgiveness.

But psychologists warn that to forgive is no panacea, no easy way out of pain. Sometimes, it can make more sense to confront than to accept. Michelle Obama said she will “never forgive” Donald Trump for spreading a phony conspiracy theory about her husband. Trump in turn said he would “never forgive” Barack Obama for various policies he disagreed with.

On this day, we do not debate forgiveness, but rather introduce you to four people, each in search of renewal, who made their decisions and went their own way.

(Hannah Agosta for The Washington Post)

A debt forgiven out of the blue

At first, Sara Cook thought the letter had to be a scam, or some kind of cruel joke.

“We are pleased to inform you that you no longer owe the balance on the debt referenced above,” it read. “Our forgiveness of the amount you owe is a no-strings-attached gift.”

Eight back surgeries and more than two dozen hospital visits in the span of three years had saddled the 43-year-old with stacks of medical bills that she struggled to pay each month. She had been working as a nurse when she first sought treatment for a herniated disc, but that was before the infection that turned into meningitis and left her with unpredictable seizures, unable to drive or walk without a cane.

By August, when the letter arrived, two years had passed since Cook last received a paycheck. The slim yellow envelope had been mailed to her old house, the one where she had lived before it became impossible to pay the rent.

Effectively homeless, she had been relying on the grace of family friends who let her stay with them for free. When she wasn’t sitting in a doctor’s waiting room or fighting to persuade the government that she qualified for disability benefits, she tried to repay her hosts for taking her in by folding their laundry and taking care of their dogs. She worried that her doctors would stop treating her because she owed them too much money.

Now, a nonprofit called RIP Medical Debt was writing to tell her that the $5,000 bill from one of her hospital stays had been forgiven.

It sounded too good to be true, but it wasn’t. The New York-based group buys up medical debt from collection agencies and hospitals for pennies on the dollar, identifying accounts that belong to cash-strapped patients all over the country and absolving their debts.

When Cook confirmed that the letter was real, she was stunned. She had never asked for help paying her bills.

People can’t apply to RIP Medical Debt for loan forgiveness; instead, donors decide whom they want to help — for instance, veterans or senior citizens. The news always comes as a complete surprise. That summer, the nonprofit partnered with a western Michigan church that raised $15,000 and wiped out more than $1.8 million in unpaid bills for people in Cook’s area.

“That was something that someone did for me when they didn’t know me, out of the kindness of their heart,” she said.

The money represented only a small fraction of the roughly $750,000 that she owes. Cook doesn’t know how she’ll ever pay off the rest. But knowing that strangers came together to help relieve her burden meant more than anything else.

Soon after she got the letter, Cook’s luck started to turn around. Her application for disability benefits was finally approved. She moved into a condo in Kalamazoo, Mich., with her aunt and rejoiced in being able to pay her share of the mortgage and the electric bill and still have money leftover for groceries.

Having her debt forgiven reinforced her belief that God would provide for her. And it showed her that any act of generosity, no matter the size, could alter your perspective on life.

“Sometimes when you give to someone who you don’t know, you don’t hear back whether that has done anything,” she said. “It does. It’s a huge difference, what it’s done for somebody.”

— Antonia Farzan

(Hannah Agosta)

Choosing not to forgive

Patricia “Tracy” Whiteside can still remember the people who acted so insensitively to her and to her three ailing children all those years ago.

There was the doctor at the National Institutes of Health who wrongly insisted that her second child didn’t have the same disease as her first. The neighbor who suddenly stopped permitting her son to hang out with Whitesides’ boy. The fellow diner at the Benihana in Bethesda who wouldn’t stop asking Whiteside and her husband intrusive questions at the worst possible time.

All of them, she cannot forgive. All of them, she cannot forget.

When Whiteside, 85, and her husband, Daniel, an official with the U.S. Public Health Service, bought their first house in the Washington area in the 1960s, they picked a redbrick colonial on Delmont Lane in Bethesda. It was just a mile from what was then the National Naval Medical Center, where all three of their children were being treated for cystic fibrosis, an incurable disease that debilitates the lungs.

The indignities were infinite. How the Whitesides had to lay their kids on a blanket-covered wooden board slanted downward so they could clap their children’s backs to help release lung mucus. How — for research purposes — hospital staff photographed her son Kemp naked at all angles, focusing their lens on his misshapen chest, despite his exhausted state.

But Whiteside never expected the small cruelties from other people.

How could a doctor — one at the NIH, no less — dismiss out of hand Whiteside’s suspicion that her second child had the same disease as the first, delaying treatment that might have prolonged the 8-month-old’s life?

“He was arrogant,” Whiteside said. “When he was wrong, he never apologized.”

How could her neighbor stop allowing her son to play with Kemp, her shaggy blond, blue-eyed boy who was obsessed with space and music, who collected records and cassettes and memorized lyrics and dreamed of becoming a disc jockey?

“My neighbor apparently didn’t think it was good for her son to see Kemp,” Whiteside recalled. “He was getting more gaunt.”

By 1970, all of her children had died. Leslie, at age 4; Donna at 6; and finally Kemp, who was 8 years old.

Shortly after the Whitesides became childless and began giving away toys and clothes, they visited that Benihana on Wisconsin Avenue. At the end of the meal, a man at the communal table peppered them about children.

How many do you have?


Really? Why not? Shouldn’t you be doing something?

“He kept pushing us,” Whiteside recalled. “His wife kept nudging him to stop. A Japanese couple just kept looking at us with sympathy. We left and got in the car and talked about how awful it was.”

She didn’t let the wounds eat away at her. She buried her children and eventually found a way to keep going, selling real estate and helping run a soap opera merchandise company. In 2017, her husband, Daniel, died.

But Whiteside, who now lives at Knollwood, a retirement community for military families in the Chevy Chase section of the District, never forgot the people who should have known better.

To forgive, she said, would feel phony.

To forgive would dishonor her pain and her children’s.

To forgive would sap her of her resolve to know that she and her husband did what they were supposed to do. They did everything they could.

— Ian Shapira

(Hannah Agosta for The Washington Post)

Forgiving each other — and themselves

They both realized the marriage might end here, on these hard plastic chairs, in a St. Paul, Minn., office. Years of grievances spilled forth when Bridget Manley Mayer asked the couple what had brought them there.

How the wife resented being the family’s breadwinner and spokesperson for 13 years while her introverted husband held back. How the husband resented the wife’s resentment.

“We really had our pattern established: ‘It’s his fault now,’ ‘It’s her fault.’ And the fingers never pointed at ourselves,” the wife said.

What brought them there was the wife’s affair. She had told her husband about it while they were at their cabin earlier that year, and he was so distraught, he drove off in the middle of the night — but came back before their two kids woke up so they wouldn’t suspect anything.

A few miserable months later, they found Mayer, who practices discernment counseling, a type of couples therapy designed to help spouses decide — in five sessions or less — whether to divorce. The protocol for discernment offers couples three choices at each session: Stay together and commit to six months of couples therapy. Begin the divorce process. Or come back for another session, which would end with the same options.

The wife wanted the divorce but couldn’t bear the havoc it would wreak on her family. The husband wanted to stay together but didn’t know how to fix what was broken.

“Would you be open to coming back and continuing to work through this?” Mayer asked. They both said yes.

They talked about how, after the gut-punch reveal, the husband thought the affair was over. But when the wife was acting funny one morning before she left for work, he checked her shared location on his iPhone. She was at someone’s house. He drove over and rang the doorbell. When the man his wife had been seeing answered, the husband said, “Please send my wife out.” She emerged, sheepishly, got into her car and drove away.

But when Mayer next asked those three questions, they chose to return.

They talked about how the husband was avoidant and how the wife had been wounded by her unstable childhood and her mother’s four marriages. They talked about what divorce would do to their kids. They talked about how the husband, in his pain, aired their dirty laundry to the wife’s business partner. Sometimes, they would drive separately because they couldn’t bear to be in each other’s presence afterward.

They came back again, and again.

After their fourth session, they weren’t sure they would be able to find their way back to each other. If they made it through the fifth session without deciding to divorce, each would have to learn how to let go of their anger.

“If we were going to try to work this out,” the husband said, “I had to forgive her.” He realized he had forgiveness to earn, too, for burying his feelings.

To accept her husband’s forgiveness, the wife knew, “I had to really forgive myself.” She was plagued with shame: “I must be broken goods. I must be incapable of having a relationship because my mom didn’t. I must be incapable of being a good enough person to be married.”

Forgiveness never took the form of a big speech or heartfelt letter. It came gradually, in spurts, as the wife demonstrated her remorse and trustworthiness, and the husband became better at opening up. They would work with Mayer for a year and a half, until they realized they didn’t need her help anymore: They had pulled the marriage back from the brink. Twelve years later, it remains stronger, more honest than ever.

When they walked into that fifth session, they didn’t yet know how to do any of that. But when Mayer asked her questions for the last time, they looked at each other, because they finally knew the answer.

— Maura Judkis

(Hannah Agosta for The Washington Post)

An uneven road to forgiveness

On a rainy December night, Karen K. sat in the living room of her townhouse in Southeast Washington, staring down the secret she had carried for 40 years.

Christmas was approaching, which always made her think of her home back in rural Oklahoma. She thought about the brick ranch house her father built with his own hands; about the hot, windy days she spent swimming in the river nearby or sewing clothes with her younger sister, Kathy.

She also thought, inevitably, about what happened in the small of the night. She thought about what he — a relative she had adored — did to her over seven years. What he did in her childhood bedroom with its two large windows and pink, flowery sheets, as she lay there, feeling powerless. She thought about her parents, and felt that swell of red-hot anger as two questions kept nagging at her:

“How couldn’t they have known?”

“Why didn’t they protect me?”

Karen winced. Her 11-year-old tabby, Josie, jumped up next to her, purring gently.

Two years ago, sitting on that couch, Karen felt that burden lighten, at least momentarily.

When they were in their late 50s, Kathy asked Karen about what she had long suspected happened when they were children. Karen, after years of therapy, opened up about the abuse for the first time. Several years later, when Kathy got breast cancer, she told her older sister to confront her abuser.

Karen wrote and rewrote a letter to him, trying to say plainly that what he did had left marks throughout her life. His actions had made it hard for her to trust men, sowed the seeds of her marriage’s breakdown and made her feel shame too intense to articulate. It had made her feel both alienated from her family and deathly afraid of losing them.

Further down in the letter, she wrote that she forgave him.

Midway through 2017, six months after Kathy died and at the height of the #MeToo movement, Karen sealed the letter in an envelope and mailed it.

The relative called her back and expressed remorse. She wept.

From then on, Karen thought, she would feel free. But trauma has an uncanny way of stalking its victims. And forgiveness, it turns out, isn’t something you choose just once.

When she sees him now at family gatherings, she still feels bitter that this secret has gnawed away at her without, it seems, leaving a dent on his perfect life with a wife and kids. At Thanksgiving, she still feels scared of being left alone in a room with the relative, who declined to speak with a Washington Post reporter.

She will see him again soon for a family wedding. Kathy’s daughter knows what happened, but Karen isn’t sure who else does. She recently met some women in the District, other survivors with their own stories of abuse. Sharing, she realizes, diminishes a secret’s power. Now, she wants to tell the rest of her family what happened, but she’s not sure they are ready — or that they’ll believe her.

Karen turned to Josie, curled into a ball, her tail in a small, tight coil.

“What do you think?” she said. “Hmm?”

Josie purred, opened her eyes briefly, snuggled closer. Outside, the rain had slowed to a drizzle.

“What should I do?” Karen said, her voice low. “What should I do . . .”

The question hung in the room. It was one she had asked before, and one she would ask again.

— Rebecca Tan

Editing by Marc Fisher. Copy editing by Annabeth Carlson. Art direction and design by Allison Mann.

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