Guilty, Your Honor, I whisper.
Have you ever done something so horrible that you would rather hide in a dark closet for the rest of your life than someone finds out you did it? Have you ever done something so bad that even remembering what you did makes you hyperventilate and shiver?
I have. I made too many mistakes in my life. I should have done better.
Sometimes I imagine myself standing before a judge in a long black robe, with my head bowed in shame. I hold tightly to a large bulging sack. The judge in the long black robe says: “Raise your head to answer me. Who are you?” I answer him in a low voice. “I am a mother, wife and teacher.” “Were you a good mother?” asks the judge. I notice his eyes looking into mine impatiently. “No, your honor,” I reply, shaking my head sadly. “I was not a good mother.”
The judge doesn’t say anything, so I continue.
“I did my best, but I made too many mistakes. I brought them to show you. They’re all in this bag,” I explain, straining to bring the bag closer to him so he can see it better. The judge looks at my jacket and mutters to himself: “It looks like this woman has a lot of bricks in here.” Then he sighs and says, “Hmmmm – how do you beg?” “Guilty, Your Honor,” I whisper to him. “Guilty.”
However, the reality is that I carried that huge bag of guilt with me from the moment the officer told me that my teenage daughter, Arlyn, took her own life. I found the biggest sack I could and opened it. Then, I threw bricks of guilt at him, one by one.
In the sack, I placed bricks for every memory I had of the times I had raised my voice to my children. I laid more bricks on the occasions when I punished them for making childish mistakes.
If only I had been more patient
In the sack, I would put bricks for every time I was too busy grading papers or doing laundry or talking on the phone to give my children, the most precious people in my life, my undivided attention.
If only I had kept my priorities straight …
In this sack too, I added bricks for the memories of many times when I had not listened to my children with my heart.
If only I had been wiser
After Arlyn died, I walked around carrying my bag of guilt; it was a painful reminder that some of my actions may have contributed to the depression that led to her death. I didn’t pull the trigger that hot August day, but it felt like I did. For me, Arlyn’s suicide provided tangible evidence that I had failed the most important mission of my life: being a mother. I deserved to have to spend the rest of my life carrying a heavy bag of bricks. This was almost a complete change from the attitude he had before Arlyn’s death. Before August 7, 1996, I had confidence in myself; I had achieved the goals I set for myself, so I thought I knew everything. If there had been a Miss Arrogance pageant, she would have won the crown.
But I fell to my knees when Arlyn died, and I would never be upright again. Any crown on my head was broken. After Arlyn’s death, the world stopped making sense. I doubted everything I had learned, my beliefs and my values. Above all, I saw myself as a great failure in life. So here I was, trying to get by each day, attached to this huge and burdensome bag of guilt that I couldn’t and didn’t want to put down.
Ughhh! My sack of bricks was so heavy – the bricks representing all the mistakes in my life were so heavy that I would need the help of a bulldozer to move them, at least. Most of the bricks in the sack had to do with Arlyn: sins of commission and sins of omission. Arlyn had committed suicide and the guilt I felt consumed me. Every day after waking up, I would stand at the foot of the huge ugly load and look at it. As much as I hated him, I felt connected to him. Sometimes he would reach out and stroke the bag up and down with one hand, never letting go with the other. It was mine.
Day after day, I stood there, clinging to my bag full of guilt bricks. Friends passed by and shook their heads at me. “Let go of your fault, Karyl. It’s not your fault!” they would say, often shaking their heads in disgust. “You are wasting your life,” others would say. “Arlyn wouldn’t want you to wear that jacket forever.” I disconnected them. What Arlyn wanted or didn’t want didn’t matter. She was not here to speak.
Sometimes I would try to explain how much I needed to hold onto the guilt, but they argued louder. So, I closed my ears and turned around. They could not understand. So it was. Life went on for those around me and I was alone. Except I had my bag of guilt to keep me company.
But then one day, for no particular reason, I reached into the bag and pulled out one of the bricks. It was dated July 5, 1996. It said: I went to Germany, so I was not here to take care of Arlyn during her last month of life.
I’ve thought about it. If I’d been here, would I have realized that something was wrong with Arlyn? It is possible that he would have. At the same time, it is more likely that I had not noticed anything.
Arlyn was a master at deception, apparently; He had been hiding his pain for years. So what makes me believe that it would have suddenly changed and became transparent?
Then my tears started to fall. I felt hot tears running down my cheeks. They were for Arlyn: Arlyn, my sweet little girl who was trapped in her own dark world by something beyond her ability to comprehend.
It hurt me a lot to remember. So bad.
But then the tears started falling faster and they felt even hotter against my face. These tears were different; them for me.
I was also trapped in my own dark and lonely world, carrying this heavy load of guilt. I was also trapped by something too complex for me to understand.
Did I really deserve the extra weight of the brick dated July 5, 1996 just because I went to Germany? Was I a terrible mother because I took a vacation that I had dreamed of for years?
In my heart, I knew I hadn’t neglected Arlyn by going on vacation. In my heart, I knew I didn’t need that extra brick to add weight to the overloaded bag.
But could you bear to throw it away? Would the world collapse if I took it out of the bag? I thought for a while as I ran my hands over the brick. It felt rough and hard and cold. Yes, I needed it. No, I did not do it. Yes, I needed it. No, I did not do it. Yes, I needed it. No, I did not do it.
Finally, I placed the brick on the ground next to me and waited. I didn’t hear loud thunder noises; the earth below me did not tremble. I looked at the sack he had been carrying. It really didn’t look any different. I tried to push it; It didn’t feel lighter, but I knew it was. It had lightened the load a bit. I took a step forward and felt a gentle breeze brush my cheek. A butterfly flew by.
Quote of the day:
Guilt is the source of pain; It is the field, the field of revenge, that follows us behind with whips and stings. ~ Nicholas Rowe