The Power of Forgiveness: Letting your love shine

I am addicted to Snickers bars. It started as a tribute to my aunt. She died not long after Thanksgiving last year. When she was first diagnosed with cancer, the doctors suggested she might have five years. She lived fourteen more. I am still in awe of her fortitude. I envied her sense of place. She knew where she wanted to be and that’s where she was: on a dairy farm in the hills of southern Minnesota. I shared her stature (and lack of curves) and her fondness for candy bars.

After she died, I started eating them in honor of her. She’d bought a Snickers bar for my cousins and I one summer when I was visiting. We were standing in the grocery store check-out line after a long day of bridesmaid dress shopping. My aunt’s impromptu purchase seemed so uncharacteristic of her, and even more so of my mom (her sister), that from my adolescent vantage point it seemed as shocking as buying The Inquirer. “For the ride home,” she’d said casually.

That’s all the justification I ever needed. I remember that taste of freedom, tinged with caramel and peanuts. Satisfying in so many ways. But even more satisfying after all these years is my friendship with her daughter. Pen-pals since elementary school, our earliest letters date back to 1980. Precious Moments stationary, hand-drawn maps of the farm, and lists of every Black Stallion book printed. Two years my senior, my cousin holds my childhood. She shares her mother’s fortitude and generosity of spirit. She, alone, taught me the power in forgiveness.

No doubt, the highlight of my summer vacation was the moment my dad turned our station wagon off the state highway and onto their gravel driveway, dust swirling and rows of corn playing hide-and-seek with their farmhouse around the bend. My cousin and I had one day together, once a year, to do everything the postal service could not oblige the other 364. We ran barefoot through the creek, “cooked” mudballs for epic mud battles, and swung high on a tire swing out over the hill. At night we talked until our eyelids grew heavy. She always fell asleep first.

Today she has three children. Two are grown and in college. She lost her eldest son at eight months, in utero. She and her husband had to leave the hospital and drive home empty-handed. How she got up the next day—and the day after that—I will never know. Years after that loss, another one took her by surprise. Me, as well. We’d been planning my visit for months, but once I was there, she was distant and distracted. Her children happily commanded my attention during the day, and at night, my cousin went to bed early. She just  kept saying: “One day I will explain all of this to you.”

Not one to let things lie, I kept probing. I wanted her to open up. But one afternoon, I pushed too hard, and when the truth finally came tumbling out, my cousin looked lost. Scared and alone in ways I had not imagined. I didn’t know what to do. I said all the wrong things. The walls around her heart lost no time. They shot straight up. We barely spoke. Not the rest of that afternoon. Not in the car ride to the airport. Not for another five years. Other than the occasional polite conversation. How are you? Fine.

Then one summer, for reasons I can no longer recall, we were both at the farm. Mine was a quick overnight stay; hers a week-long visit with her family. We all sat in the kitchen, eating ham sandwiches and baked beans. My uncle recounted, with a hearty laugh, the summer I squeezed him too hard as we flew down the side of a mountain on his four-wheeler. Next came the infamous tales of how I always woke up in the mornings to the cows already milked and the breakfast dishes put away.  

In an effort to redeem my younger ways, I stood up and cleared the table. I grabbed a towel to dry the dishes my cousin decided to wash. In a matter of minutes, everyone dispersed, and we were alone, standing side by side over the kitchen sink, looking out the window past the barn and the distant creek.

“Do you remember?” I asked softly, too afraid to say anything more.

“I do,” she replied.

“I overstepped. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too. You were just trying to protect me.”

And, with that, it was done. Over. Complete. Hours later, after her children were in bed, we sat out under a blanket of stars, the windows rolled down in her family van. Only this time it was me who let the truth come tumbling out. My cousin held my loss as generously as she held her own.

That night, when I needed her most, my cousin slipped right back into my life. She did so without judgment. Without resentment or regret. Her forgiveness freed me to step into the fullness of my own story. I held nothing back, detail after detail, tears sliding down my face. Hers, too. Shame and fear of what other people would think had forced that loss largely underground. The ease of our less-than-two-minute exchange had radically expanded my sense of how the divine seems to work—patiently waiting to liberate us from all that holds us back and inviting us to let our love flow freely once again.  

As for my love of Snickers, well, it turns out that God is a fan too. In her book of poetry, God Went to Beauty School, well-known children’s writer Cynthia Rylant has God accepting a desk job “just to see what it would be like.” After the first day, God felt “the Light inside grow dimmer and dimmer.” God’s back hurt. God was tired of answering the phone and having to be so polite every single time. It was torture sitting all day. The only thing that helped were Snickers bars: “God ate thirty-seven.” That, and imagining the Eagle Nebula in the constellation Serpens.

Seven thousand light years away from the Earth, that collection of cosmic dust and gas shimmers in a summer sky. In the end, after all our days, all we have is love. My aunt understood that all too well. If I imagine her telling me anything, I believe she’d say: Let your love shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.