- Call of the Sirens
I dream I'm in the mountains, hiking by myself. I come upon a cliff that drops sharply into a canyon. I walk cautiously to the edge, glancing down a vertical 1,000-foot drop, then quickly retreat to safety, ten feet in from the precipice. A few moments later I inch closer, lingering a little longer at the edge, and then retreat once again. There is something beautiful at the bottom of the canyon, but fear keeps me from taking a longer look. I yearn to see it, though. The back and forth continues, and each time I linger longer and retreat less, until I can finally see the bottom clearly, without any trepidation. Down below I see a person sitting on a rock, resting, dangling her feet in a stream. I realize it's my deceased mother. She looks up and sees me. She smiles and waves. After a moment, she stands up and disappears into the thick brush. I stand at the edge a moment longer, interested but assuaged, no longer curious, and finally satisfied by what I have seen. I retreat from the cliff, continuing on my hike.
* * *
The impetus to learn about my mother's killer came from an outsider, a virtual stranger. It came 20 years after the murder, quietly camouflaged like the army of other unexpected emotional blitzes I had experienced since her death. They would catch me by surprise, following seemingly incidental events such as the holidays, or a simple lunch with a friend and her mother. Like falling into a foxhole, I'd wait for the attack to finish, then climb out—always a survivor, but fatigued and worn from the ravage.
* * *
My husband, Michael, and I were attending an informal meeting at a church we were thinking of joining, an introduction of sorts. Raised in different faiths, we were seeking common ground, a place to spiritually anchor our family. We sat in the back of a room, Michael on one side of [End Page 43] me and an attractive pregnant woman on the other. I learned that she was also a writer. I liked her immediately and thought it was a promising sign.
Within a few minutes, a short, stout man named Gary, with red wavy hair and a rounded nose, stood up to address our group of about 15. He was a church member and the head of a prison ministry called KAIROS. He wanted to speak to us about his work at a local men's prison. I couldn't help but secretly characterize Gary as a holy roller as he paced back and forth in front of us, carrying his small, worn Bible between his hands. He's one of those, I thought. Gary spoke of the prison inmates he worked with and the positive impact forgiveness had had in their lives.
"It's amazing to see how some of these men commit themselves to doing God's work, after the terrible things they've done. They turn their lives around," he said. I felt myself twinge, feeling viscerally annoyed.
While I basically believed that forgiveness was a good thing for mankind, it wasn't something I thought much about, except perhaps following an infrequent argument with a friend or family member, or when encouraging my children to make peace with one another. But I had never considered forgiving the man who killed my mother. That brand of forgiveness was for extremists who went on Oprah. I had no interest in having a positive impact on a cold-blooded murderer. In fact, I strongly supported the death penalty, silently bitter that my mother's killer had only received a life sentence.
Here are the primitive facts. In New Orleans in 1980, a drug-crazed gunman from Texas, looking for his next fix, entered the convenience store where my mother, a single woman, worked in the evenings. It was 8:30 on a Friday night, just before closing. He held her at gunpoint while she gave him all of the money from the register. Backing out of the store, he fired a shot that hit her squarely in the chest. She...