“Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” ~Corrie ten Boom
I sat next to my stepmother Elaine in her hospital room. I was thirteen. We’d met six years prior as she took a stepmother’s role and had a strained relationship and didn’t speak to each other for parts of it.
Elaine was facing terminal brain cancer. So far she had kept herself together and composed, remaining strong on the outside. I was trying my hardest to do the same for her.
It had all started back when I was seven and my dad took me to a carnival. My parents were still together at the time. It was there I first met Elaine and her son, four years my junior.
Her son and I played a many carnival games together and we bonded quickly. Even as we grew more competitive, I found myself continually distracted by Elaine’s close presence and her friendliness with my dad. All I saw was that she was taking my dad away.
A year later, my father sat me down and told me he was leaving for a little while. This immediately caused an internal alarm to sound. A little while?
They didn’t really expect me to believe that, did they? He must’ve thought I wouldn’t understand. But deep down I knew this was only going to mean one thing: divorce.
I even told my best friend about it. “My parents are fighting a lot. I think they’re getting a divorce.”
“My parents fight too. It’s fine,” she said. But I thought to myself that it wasn’t the same, that everything wasn’t fine.
Elaine was a strong, independent businesswoman who thrived in her sales occupation and went for runs religiously every morning at five o’clock. She placed a lot of importance on eating right and an overall healthy lifestyle. The mere fact she would be the one of all people to end up with terminal cancer shocked everyone.
The cancer started in her stomach but soon afterward it rapidly began to metastasize and spread to her brain. It became brain cancer, something she strived to fight against. She still wound up staying in the hospital, defying her strong will and intent to get better.
Although I visited her in the hospital many times, we never grew as close as I felt we should have. It’s one of my greatest regrets.
I resented the fact that Elaine took my dad away from my mom. Or at least, that was my perception of what happened. As the resentment grew within me, so did the void between me and Elaine.
During the course of Elaine’s relationship with my father, I fell under the impression that she was trying to buy my affection with material things. She took me to the mall more than once to buy clothes, jewelry, and other items for me—but why? On the inside, I refused to allow myself be bought.
Then one Christmas, she wrote a poem about our relationship and how it really wasn’t where she hoped it would be. Upon reading this, I kept my head down and didn’t respond. She also presented me with a number of certificates one day each month to go places and do things.
Such gifts included the spa, Barnes and Noble, the mall, various other stores, and more. These acts of generosity were overwhelming me, and not in a good way. I was beginning to feel like being bought was entirely unforgivable.
One day, in a blaze of frustration, I asked Elaine if she knew my mother cried at night because of her. Elaine burst into tears. With my words, I’d stopped her in tracks in the middle of the many acts of generosity, but I felt it had to be said.
These events had fractured our relationship even further.
From that point on things didn’t improve much, until one day when I’d been running around outside of our lake house in the woods and became lost. I wandered for hours, growing more hopeless by the moment, until I heard something in the distance. It was a bell, and by some miracle it seemed to be ringing for me!
Immediately, I began sprinting in the direction of the sound. To my amazement it was Elaine. She’d rung the bell in an effort to guide me back.
I ran into her outstretched arms and collapsed into them while crying. “Everything’s okay now,” she said, holding me tighter than ever before.
In this moment, something drastic happened. All of the previous animosity I had been holding onto began to melt away. She finally had me; she’d won.
At first I felt defeated at the fact that I’d finally given in and accepted Elaine’s genuineness of her care for me. But these feelings would soon turn to regret when she first spoke to us of the cancer. As the word spread, people from all corners of life gave her gifts in wake of her diagnosis.
I was amazed at the outpouring of generosity for Elaine. I gained more respect for her. She didn’t hesitate to pass many of the gifts on to myself and her son.
One day, toward the end, I’d been reading one of Elaine’s books. It was about Corrie Ten Boom, a former holocaust survivor of World War II who forgave a former and repented Nazi concentration camp guard who approached her after listening to her speak. I was moved by her astounding compassion and I closed the book, in tears.
I knew that I had to try and find that same forgiveness in myself.
At the hospital, Elaine was deteriorating. As she’d become greatly overheated, I suggested that we pat her down with a wet washcloth. Without hesitation, she said, “I want Sarah to do it.”
Something happened when I ran the washcloth across her forehead and body. I forgave her. In doing this, I’d become her servant and given her all the attention I had to give.
During this experience, I learned that forgiving someone is easiest when they are in their humblest, most vulnerable state of being. When someone is on their deathbed, it doesn’t so much matter anymore what they’ve done or didn’t do during their lifetime. Their sins seem to dissipate or almost wash clean away.
Soon after Elaine was moved to a hospice for care and I was set to attend a formal dance at my school. She was very excited and couldn’t wait to see me in my dress, which surprised me pleasantly. I entered her room in grand fashion, twirling from side to side in my blue gown with a matching blue rose in my hair.
Before I departed for the dance, she gave me a long hug. Thinking the embrace had ended, I tried to pull back out of it, but she wasn’t letting go. She lingered and stared at me, which caught me off guard.
At the time I had no real idea what was happening and what it all meant, but this was goodbye. She must’ve been sure of this on the inside but refused to let on to that. And in that moment she protected us from that knowledge and in a reassuring way said, “I think I’m getting better.”
We left shortly afterward. Not long after that, Elaine passed.
Later, I thought back to the conversation I had with Elaine in the hospital, when we were stuck in an awkward silence and both looking in opposite directions.
I told her that I had been going through a hard time and I was feeling depressed. She said that she had struggled with multiple bouts of depression in her own life.
This surprised me more than anything. “But you’re such a strong businesswoman and mom!” I said. She smiled and didn’t respond.
She always held it together, staying strong in the face of adversity, and I was surprised to learn that even she struggled. In learning this, we had the chance to both share our stories and gain some common ground, giving us compassion for one another.
In Elaine’s absence, I remembered what Corrie Ten Boom taught me about forgiveness: you can do it without feeling it. The faith in forgiveness comes first. Act in goodness and the feeling will come.
“Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.” Corrie Ten Boom’s famous words have never left me.
Even when I didn’t know which visit to Elaine’s hospice would be the last, when I couldn’t change my circumstances, I changed myself. In forgiving her, I forgave myself. And although I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye the way I wanted to, I felt there was peace and understanding between us.
Forgiving myself was a harder, longer journey than forgiving Elaine. After she passed, I still regretted how much I resisted her. Her gifts now meant so much more.
She had been seeking appreciation, and I had been withholding it from her. Life found a way to pull it from me through grief and time.
She had been in my life for so long, yet I was only just beginning to realize the worth she sometimes lacked, the struggle she had with our strained relationship, and the persona she put on to make sure everyone knew she was okay.
She wasn’t always okay. I never saw her vulnerability until the end, just a hardened exterior that only fate could unravel and reveal.
She wasn’t my mother; she could never take that role. She wasn’t my stepmom really because she didn’t marry my dad. But she never gave up on me.
Now when I think back to the poem that she read to me, I reflect on the lines
“I was writing my list to bring Christmas joy…
And I couldn’t think of anything to buy you but a boy;
Since that was not practical and not really right;
I thought I’d be more creative and shed some light;
Like on our relationship that’s not quite there;
But my heart still tells me I care.”
I know now to live in the moment, appreciate the time I have with people, and in my heart try to forgive even when it’s hard. People still alive need me here and now, even though I want to turn back time. I can’t live in the past.
Self-forgiveness is hard. It’s harder than forgiving those that hurt you. Imagine if they were on their last days, though. What would you say to them?
Say that to them now. Learn from the mistakes of the past, don’t live in them. I had no idea there was a time limit to knowing Elaine, but there is a time limit on us all.
We don’t feel this limit. We don’t realize how quickly time passes us by. Any day could be an unwarranted goodbye.
We can’t control the outcome. I couldn’t stop the cancer, but I could stand up to it. I could make a difference in her life however limited in time we were.
I wish now that I had let her in. I would have had a best friend. I should have shown her my feelings and given myself the chance to be reconciled with her.
Even though I will never have that chance again, I served her at the end of her life. I believe we should all be serving each other.
I was lucky.
I didn’t learn this lesson too late even though I was running out of time.
It is never too late to love someone, to forgive, to mend—until you run out of time. Even if it’s not reciprocated, you can respect another’s choice by leading in love yourself. Elaine never gave up on me.
So I’m not giving up on you. You too can do this. You can live again once you forgive.
It doesn’t mean everything will change, but the most important thing will be: You will be set right, set apart, and make a difference in someone’s life. Maybe even more than in your own.
The world is a broken one, but there is beauty in the brokenness. It takes bravery to see it, to act on it, to respect it. Things aren’t perfect, but through forgiveness you can make the world just a little bit better.
You need only allow yourself to.