It’s crazy how one story reminds me of another. If I hear about a wedding, I remember my own. Jack standing at the front of the church. White tuxedo, black-tie, matching cummerbund, both laced with silver threads.
A sweet memory, but others are uncomfortable.
We hear a story
There are memories I want to forget, but recall in the telling of someone else’s story. Like a dusty storage room in the back of the basement. Cobwebs. The stench of something rotting. I don’t want to go there.
When I read about Kate’s encounter with the mujahedin man in Afghanistan, I found myself on the threshold of just such a room. The door opened of its own accord.
And remember our own
I try to push it shut. Walk away and forget once again. But I can’t. So I stand here, hoping there’s a grace in this? A gift for me in this room. I try to believe, but it takes all my faith in the goodness of God to allow this remembering.
A couple of weeks before Jack and I got married, there was an incident. I never told him. How could I?
The night before the incident, Jack and I had argued. Flowers, I think. But really, it was more than that. The whole wedding planning stressed us out. That night, we argued, fiercely.
When I left him, I wasn’t sure if there would be a wedding. Since then, I’ve learned that it’s okay for Jack and I to argue. We get through it. But that first big argument frightened me.
Unwanted, we recall
The next day I met one on one with my dance coach. He said there was something I kept messing up and he wanted to help me fix it. I believed him. That was my first mistake.
Anyway, you can imagine the story. At the time, I tried to pretend it was no big deal. He grabbed me and pushed himself against me. I pulled away or maybe I pushed him away. It was in the middle of the kiss. A kiss I hadn’t wanted. Anyway, I don’t know how I got away. I just did.
I was wearing a T-shirt and dance leotards. He grabbed my shirt and I slipped out of it. I left it in his hands when I fled the room.
I was terrified. I just wanted to get away from him. But then I ran into a group of students in the hall. They gawked. All I had on was my bra and leotards. I didn’t even have shoes on my feet. Of course not, I was dancing barefoot.
and the good
One of the students yelled at me, but I just kept running. He chased me down and grabbed my arm. “Wait. Wait.” It was like he was pleading with me. He didn’t let go until I stopped struggling.
“Let me give you my shirt.”
That’s when I cried.
He was wearing a blue T-shirt with a red flannel shirt over it and he gave me his flannel. It was warm and soft. I didn’t know him, but I let him hug me while I cried. He just kept saying “you’re all right. You’re all right.”
and the silence.
I never told Jack. I just didn’t know how. And since then, I’ve never told anyone. I just resolved never to be with my dance coach alone again. It wasn’t all that hard. I figured it out. Still, I hated being around him, dancing. I hated being vulnerable and exposed. I hated knowing he was watching me, watching my body move.
I could have quit, but I was just weeks from graduation and I needed the class. How could I tell Jack or my parents that I wasn’t graduating?
The remembering is painful. It’s like exploring a dank room in the back of a basement. A room I’ve been ignoring all my adult life.
We look for a gift
But where’s the gift? I know it’s got to be here. There’s has to be some good in coming back to this room. But all I can see is my dance coach, the practice room, and Jack standing so clean and handsome in the middle of all this filth.
Kate wrote about a mujahedin soldier, a man in Afghanistan who had undoubtedly done terrible things. He carried the guilt with him. He couldn’t imagine that God could love him, let alone forgive him. Could I?
I don’t know.
Kate had just come from a group of Afghan women who’d told the most horrible story. A girl they loved, defiled by mujahedin soldiers.
I didn’t want to compare my own experience with the hers. Or really, I just wanted to minimize my experience. I wanted to pretend it didn’t matter. It’s no big deal. After all, I got away. And someone helped me. Another student with a flannel shirt. Isn’t that enough?
But now I’m standing in the doorway of a filthy room hoping there’s some good for me in this painful remembering. Does God have something for me? Something good?
I feel like I’ve walked in, pulled the light switch, and now I’m looking at all the junk. But is there anything else? Anything good here?
And find God
I realize I’m asking a question to a companion I can’t see.
“Can you forgive him?”
I want to sweep his words away. “Of course. Of course I did. Years ago. Didn’t I?
But I know the truth. The truth is I just pretended it didn’t matter. I told myself it was no big deal. But it was. It was wrong and frightening and violating.
I realize I’m still holding Kate’s book in my hands. Still sitting in my wicker butterfly chair in my private quarters in Malta. Still looking out through the window at the little garden I planted behind the guesthouse.
In our remembering
Yet I’m also a college student wearing a stranger’s red flannel shirt, running barefoot back to my room. Slamming the door. Curling up under my blankets. Crying. I can’t deny it. It was a big deal. And now, 32 years later, I’m standing in a basement room full of filth and stench and saying out loud, “He had no right to hurt me.”
I realize my unseen companion isn’t arguing with me. It’s like he’s saying. “Yes. It was wrong. It was terrifying. And no. He had no right to touch you.”
And in that hearing, I sense a kind of relief. Like my whole body is relaxing. Something’s falling away. Shame? I’m not sure. But saying the truth out loud does something. It breaks the power of silence. This person did wrong. I don’t have to pretend anymore. I don’t have to convince myself that it was no big deal. It was a big deal. Truth. This truth bring freedom.
Still, I’m not finished. I want justice. Punishment.
I can see my dance coach standing in the middle of the basement room. He’s old now. Probably 70. Bent and frail.
I hate him.
In that moment, I sense my companion’s fingertips on my shoulder. Another scene opens before me. I realize I’ve entered a Bible story. A crowd of soldiers, carrying torches are leading Jesus down a street. I know he’s been arrested and I realize, he never said, when you repent, I’ll walk this path with you. Instead, he just did it.
I take a deep breath, grateful that he’s not asking me to excuse the man or what he did. Not asking me to understand or say it’s okay. Not even asking me to see the man’s brokenness.
hear his invitation
Instead, he’s asking me to forgive the man.
And now I’m standing in my own room, in Malta, enveloped by the scent of garden flowers.
“Can you forgive him?”
The question is gentle, inviting, and I realize I can. Not because he deserves it, but because I do. I don’t have to eternally carry this hurt, this shame, this outrage.
I find myself nodding and speaking truth aloud. I outline the indictment, imagining my dance coach standing in front of me. Except now, he’s not pushing his body against mine. Instead, he’s standing abashed in the middle of our practice room. There are mirrors on the walls and I see him, but he’s reflected in different forms; a small child, a gawky teen, a lithe young dancer, an arrogant dance coach, and a frail old man.
and find healing
I am strong. Healthy.
I’m no longer wearing my leotards and a borrowed flannel shirt. Instead, I’m wearing the dress I chose for my wedding. White satin, Chantilly lace adorned with silver threads. But my hair is snow white, the color it is today, at 52.
I feel strong and clean. And in my strength, I look at the man. I forgive him, turn, and walk out of that room.
For our souls
I feel like the dance has returned to my feet. My body is lighter. I’m walking down a hall holding my head high. I am Helen, loved by a man who waits for me at the front of a church in a white tuxedo with a black tie and a matching cummerbund laced with silver. I walk down the aisle, knowing that I’m beautiful.