A few weeks ago I had it in my head that I was going to take the high road and do some forgiving. Forgiving my sister for staying with her pedophile husband after he abused their daughter. Forgiving him for kissing me when I was 15 and he was 29 and married to my sister. Forgiving him for the devastation he left in the wake of his abuse of my niece. You see, my sister had expressed a desire for a renewed relationship. I am her only remaining sibling. And she, mine. Our brothers are dead. Our father is dead. Our mother is in a slow and steady decline. After our phone call taking the first tentative steps toward reconciliation, visions of Kumbaya danced in my head. I wanted to hold hands with my sister and her daughters and sing so badly, I was willing to overlook the fact that my sister has always been utterly tone-deaf.
My first opportunity to try out this new way of thinking was yesterday. My niece and her fiancé had a party at my sister’s house to celebrate their engagement. I was all set to go. And then I wasn’t. A week before the party, I started going into a tailspin. I’d have to hang out at my sister’s house with her husband (not to mention my mother, who recently had played the Cat Card), and pretend he wasn’t a pedophile. I am a master at denial. Really, I am. I’ve had years of practice. But this was a tall order and it wasn’t coming easily. Particularly since I’ve long believed that Forgiveness is Dangerous.
In an attempt to find a way to sit around a campfire with my sister and her family, I spent hours on the Google. I searched and searched for something that would tell me my brother-in-law’s sexual abuse of my niece was an anomaly. He was not sexually attracted to children then, or now, and never would be. It was a weird, one-off situation (even though it happened over years), brought on by stress and his own abusive childhood. I wanted to find professional journal articles that would tell me someone can abuse a child, but not be an abuser. Someone can sexually molest a child, and not be a pedophile. I wanted to let him off the hook. My sister had done it. And it was her child and her little sister he had abused. I had to be missing something. There had to be an explanation that would allow me to let it go.
Let it go. Be the bigger person. Move on. Forgive. Forget. Sing motherfucking Kumbaya together. And maybe even eat a s’more afterward.
Despite my dogged determination, I didn’t find anything via the Google that would help me accomplish my goal. Dude was a pedophile. An abuser. A despicable excuse for a human being. Can he still be a pathetic and sympathetic figure? Sometimes. Depending on my mood. Other times, I wish he’d hurry up and die already, and make all our lives just a little bit less complicated.
In the meantime, I’d agreed to go to a party at my sister’s house. Since Kumbaya no longer seemed possible despite my best attempts to rationalize the acceptability of the hand-holding and the singing, I was having second thoughts about going. I wanted to go to see my nieces, and my great-niece, who has just turned one and whom I hadn’t seen since Christmas. But my brother-in-law. I didn’t want to pretend he hadn’t done what he did. I didn’t have to go. I could say no. But I needed an excuse. So, again. Google to the rescue. I ran searches on excuses for getting out of family obligations. I already had all the standard ones at my disposal: work, illness, work, car trouble, work. Those didn’t seem good enough this time. I pondered the idea of having to care for a sick friend. But I imagined the complicated stories I’d have to concoct. The illness. Why no one else was available to care-take. What kind of soup I made her. Too much work. As I imagined driving to Houston for the party, I felt a deep, painful burning in my stomach. An actual physical manifestation of the stress brought on by the thought of spending time with my sister and brother-in-law. That settled it. I wasn’t going. And still, my internet searches had not hit upon the right excuse.
And them my plumber called. He’d been out recently and done some work, and was following up. The issue wasn’t fully resolved. He wanted to come out the same day as the party and finish the job. Bingo. I had my excuse. I told my sister and my niece I had a plumbing problem and the only time the plumber could come before I leave for vacation on Thursday was Saturday, the day of the party. I was free from the obligation. And my excuse was only exaggerated, rather than completely fabricated.
Saturday morning I lie in bed with the cats, imagining the free day ahead of me. No stressful family parties. I’d go for a walk before it got too hot. Catch up on my writing. My blogging. Make my packing list for my upcoming vacation. But first I had to check Facebook. I spotted a post from my niece about how excited she was about the prospect of seeing everyone later that day to celebrate her engagement. The plumber was coming, I told myself. Couldn’t be helped. (I’d bought my own bullshit, it seems.) I laced up my shoes and headed out for a stress-busting walk. It didn’t have it’s intended effect. Mid-walk, I decided to cancel the plumber and head to Houston. To the party.
My nieces were happy to see me. My mother was happy to see me. My sister was her usual stoic self, but I think she was glad I was there. The baby was gorgeous and adorable and sweet and I just wanted to eat her up. I was thrilled to hold her and bounce her on my lap and talk baby talk to her. I happily cut up watermelon for her, watching her scoop it into her mouth with her sticky little baby fingers. (This baby is obsessed with watermelon.) I was tickled to tuck her long dress into her diaper so she could crawl around the kitchen floor unimpeded. (She was wearing a dress I’d given her for her birthday.) Watching her splash in the pool in her sun bonnet, playing with her yellow rubber ducky, was sheer joy. Yes, seeing my great-niece made the stomach ache and dealing with my brother-in-law worth it. But when I looked at that little baby, that sweet innocent, beautiful girl, I wondered: Is my sister thinking about what he did? When she watches the baby splashing about with her grandfather in the pool, is she worried he might do it again? Granted, there are no unsupervised moments. But are my nieces thinking about it? Does my niece, the baby’s mother, have fear deep inside that her grandfather might some day have thoughts about her daughter, even if he doesn’t act on them, like he did about her younger sister? Does the baby’s father worry? We’re all thinking about it to some degree. We have to be.
Even if my niece has forgiven her father for what he did to her, this damage, the innocence he obliterated that we can never get back, I can never forgive my brother-in-law for. The fear that each of us carries. Some on the surface. Some, like my sister, maybe only down deep. But it’s there. I’m sure of it. Until he’s dead, it’s there. And some day, he’ll be gone. Then, we’ll sing and eat s’mores.