I needed to take a break from the novel I’m working on. So I wrote this.
“Write this down,” the speaker said. He waited until he had the crowd’s full attention. “If you remember nothing else today, remember this. Ready?” He flashed a too white smile, scanning the room for poised pens. Satisfied, he half-whispered, “Forgiveness.” He was pleased to see 60 people leaning in, not wanting to miss out. All except for some rumpled overweight fifty-something guy in the back, fidgeting in his seat and looking for an escape route.
Feeling the man’s eyes on him, Jerry Barnes scribbled the word in the custom-imprinted yellow legal pad provided as part of the “Gratitude is the Attitude” workshop package and thought here we go again. Ordinarily, the conference room at the Holiday Inn Express was the last place Jerry wanted to find himself on a Saturday morning. But his friend Scott (his only remaining friend) had taken it upon himself to buy Jerry’s ticket because, as he confided over too many beers the week before, “I’m worried about you.”
Respecting Scott’s $99 investment, Jerry agreed to go. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t position himself in the last row in the seat closest to the door, just in case things got weird. Scott didn’t join his friend, having attended the previous year and deeming the event “life changing.” He hadn’t stopped yapping about it since, so Jerry finally made him a deal. “I’ll go,” he said. “But I never want to hear about it again.”
For the first half hour or so, Jerry was sorry he ever agreed, the door beckoning him with promises of a quick nine at Desert Palms or a quiet day puttering around the garage. He found the speaker, a “nationally-renowned master motivator” according to the flyer, insufferable. The guy, all smooth and oily like a TV preacher, pushed every one of Jerry’s buttons, some twice. Jerry hated his custom white linen suit with the red boutonniere, the $400 John Edwards haircut, the perfect teeth, the way his voice rose and fell in practiced nonchalance. Guys like this were the reason Jerry stopped going to church. That, and the fact he’d given up on God. Anyone with a brain who watched the news had to conclude one of the following: God was nonexistent, incompetent or an asshole. Jerry wanted nothing to do with any of Them.
Which is why he had nowhere to turn for solace after his wife died. He had briefly tried counseling but suspected the therapist of dozing. And who could blame him? Jerry’s story just wasn’t that darned interesting; the poor man had probably heard variations of it hundreds of times before.
The 12-step group he had attended wasn’t any better. Jerry just flat out didn’t feel like sharing. He sat there with his arms folded across his chest in open defiance, waving off any attempt to communicate. He did like listening to the others’ stories though, mainly because they made him feel normal. He might be the least screwed up person in the room. But that in itself wasn’t enough to keep him coming back. Plus, he had an issue with that whole “higher power” thing.
He had a stack of self-help books on his nightstand, books with titles like “Stinking Thinking” and “The Happiness Paradigm.” But to do him any good, he had to read them. And Jerry couldn’t get past the Acknowledgement page.
“Forgiveness,” the speaker repeated, louder this time, interrupting Jerry’s memory-laden walkabout. “Forgiveness for everyone who ever did you wrong. Forgiveness for your ex-business partner who embezzled the company funds. Forgiveness for your cheating husband or wife. Forgiveness for the idiot who wrecked your brand spanking new car the minute you drove it off the lot . . .”
He was really on a roll now, the cadences more evangelical than ever. Glancing around the room, Jerry was disgusted to see people nodding their heads in agreement, their eyes vacant and glassy.
“Are you with me?” the speaker asked. “Yes!” dozens of voices sang out.
“Turn to your neighbor and say, ‘I forgive you.’ Just for practice.” Jerry swore the man winked. The old lady in the seat next to him rotated in his direction and rasped, “I forgive you!”
Jerry mouthed the words back.
“And I forgive you!” the speaker said to his audience. “Amen!” someone shouted, apparently forgetting the venue.
“Is it going to be easy?” the speaker asked. Confidential now, taking it down a notch. “Yes!” the people responded.
“No,” the speaker practically whispered. “It’s not.”
Confused, disappointed looks from the congregation. The speaker had Jerry’s attention now. Maybe this could get interesting after all. He stopped focusing on the door for the first time.
The speaker continued, “It’s going to be hard. Maybe the hardest thing you’ve ever done. I know it was for me. But you have to do it. You have no choice. Your life depends on it. In the words of Gandhi, who knew a little something about forgiveness, ‘Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.’”
Assorted chuckles. The speaker commanding his room.
“It has to be more than lip service. You have to really mean it. Want to know how?” “Yes!” Jerry was startled to find himself among the yes-men and women.
“Okay. You talked me into it. Here goes.” The speaker gripped the podium and leaned in. “You have to be grateful to them. That’s right. Grateful! Because they did you a favor, each and every one of them. They made you the people you are today. They led you to this place and to me. And after our little get-together your lives will never be the same. Still with me?”
The speaker picked up his pace. “Resentment is blocking your success. Anger is keeping you stuck. Bitterness is making you sick in mind, body and soul. Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired?”
“Then release it. Release it all with gratitude. Go deep into your memory and figure out how that no good son-of-a-gun, that rotten so- and-so helped you. What life lesson he taught you. What favor she did you. Because sure as I’m standing here, this is the only way to move on.” A pause to take a sip of water and survey the flock. “Besides, whatever they did wasn’t about you. It was about them. That ex-boss who robbed you blind? He wanted the money for himself. You just happened to get in his way, an innocent bystander. Your lying, cheating spouse? Bored with life, no self-esteem, whatever. Not your problem. So forgive them all! Let go and get on with the business of living.
“Now, we’re going to take a short break. But it’s not a goofing off kind of break. Sure, you can use the little boy’s room or the little girl’s room. But as soon as you get back, I’ve got a homework assignment for you. I want you to make a list on your legal pad of every person you need to forgive. Don’t worry if it’s not complete. You’ll think of more names on the drive home and in the shower tomorrow morning. But it’s a start. And speaking of start, you know whose name I want at the top of that list? Yours! You need to forgive yourself first. And when you’re done, I want you to think, really think, about what favor all those other folks did you. And write it down next to each name. Are you with me?”
The speaker rubbed his hands together and smiled. “We’ll reconvene in 20 minutes.”
That night, Jerry sat at the kitchen table in his modest Westside condo, pushed aside a half-eaten Stouffer’s lasagna, and reviewed the list he had started at the workshop. Compiling the list had been easy. There was no shortage of jerks, back-stabbers and other assorted ne’er do wells haunting his existence since boyhood. Marty Thomas (never trust a guy with two first names), his across-the-street neighbor who picked on him unmercifully all through junior high. Fran Fischman, his high school sweetheart who dumped him two days before senior prom. Ray Schuler, his first boss who tormented him daily about his weight in front of the whole staff. On and on, right up to the present day. Al Brunswick, his ex-business partner, who ran off to Costa Rica with some bimbo and left Jerry with a boatload of debt, a bleeding ulcer and the beginnings of a drinking problem. Clients who treated him like crap and skipped out on their bills. Every publisher who rejected the historical novel he’d written (in his spare time) with form letters or hateful hand-written scrawls or painful silence. All made the list.
It was a cathartic exercise to be sure. Jerry felt better already. But now came the challenge; figuring out, in the speaker’s words, the “favor” they had done him. The earlier ones were easy, maybe because time had softened the pain or had provided a sense of perspective. Bullies taught him to stand up for himself. (He had kicked Marty Thomas’ ass after a summer growth spurt left him a head taller and 20 pounds heavier.) Asshole bosses drove him into self-employment. His ex-business partner showed him how pending bankruptcy was the best motivator. Friends and relatives let him down and taught him to lower his expectations.
A few minutes after midnight, Jerry laid down his pen, stretched, yawned and reviewed his list with approval. All present and accounted for. All forgiven. Except one.
Howard Baxter, board certified doctor of internal medicine. Family physician, occasional golfing buddy, the man he’d taken Helen to see when the stomach pains started. After the tests came back negative, Dr. Baxter put her on Nexium for heartburn and sent her home. It was the medical equivalent of a pat on the head. Three weeks later she was in ER, doubled over and gasping for air. Hospital admission, more tests, more nothing. Stronger meds from the doc and a whispered comment about stress, menopause and needing attention. When was the last time they went on a nice, restful vacation? Our honeymoon?” Jerry offered, looking down at his shoes.
Over the next month, Jerry started getting home at a reasonable hour, feigned interest in Helen’s stories about her day, ate dinner with his wife, and handed over the remote control. And sure enough, the color returned to her face and she put on a few needed pounds. That’s when he booked the surprise cruise to Cozumel.
On the last night during the Captain’s Dinner, Helen began spitting up blood. She never made it home alive.
Jerry didn’t hear from Dr. Baxter again. Not even the courtesy of a perfunctory phone call or a 99 cent sympathy card. He tried calling, emailing, dropping by the clinic at unexpected times. Apparently the good doctor was forever out, at least for Jerry. He swung by his upscale development a few times but couldn’t get past the guard gate. He visited a malpractice attorney with no luck. “You can’t argue with the tests,” the shyster told him. Besides, the entire legal community was embroiled in a massive lawsuit against a radiology chain with deep pockets. “We’ve got to follow the money, don’t we?” he said with a shrug.
That was five years ago. Jerry tried to put the past behind him, move on with his life. But the anger and bitterness ate away at him no less than the cancer that killed his wife. He could understand the misdiagnosis, maybe even forgive it. But the rest? How could a man he considered a friend turn his back on him like that? He needed an explanation. He needed closure.
Thank goodness for the Internet. A few clicks and Jerry located a Dr. Howard Baxter in Mission Viejo, California. It was so easy, it made him wonder how private investigators stayed in business. Another click on Google Images revealed him to be one and the same. It pleased Jerry that the man looked considerably older than the last time he saw him, with deep grooves carved in his forehead and a network of lines surrounding both puffy eyes. Perhaps the past five years hadn’t been so kind to him either. A final click and Jerry found himself on the Mission Center for Internal Medicine website.
“I’m sorry,” the receptionist said. “Dr. Baxter is semi-retired. We rarely see him anymore. Can I make you an appointment with one of his associates?”
“No, that’s okay.” A trickle of sweat ran down Jerry’s left arm. He decided to take a shot. “I’m supposed to play golf with him later this week. I can’t remember the name of the club. Can you tell me?”
“Mission Viejo Country Club.”
He thanked her and hung up, his heart racing. Everything about that town, it seemed, was mission this and mission that. Well, Jerry was a man on a mission. He saw it as some kind of sign.
A day later, maneuvering his rental Buick slowly around the Mission Viejo Country Club parking lot, Jerry sifted through the Beemers and Benzes for any hint of Howard Baxter. Back home, Baxter had always been an Audi man, most recently an A8. People being creatures of habit, Jerry hoped he would stumble onto some kind of clue. Not much of a plan, he knew. But it was the best he could come up with after the gal at the check-in counter proved to be as tight lipped as a CIA operative.
The first day he came up empty. The second day too. But on the third day he hit pay dirt. A new black A8 sporting the doctor’s signature DOC BAX personalized plate, only this time of California origin. Creatures of habit indeed. Jerry thanked his lucky stars and angled into a parking space with a clear view of the car. He had waited this long. He could wait a while longer.
Jerry awoke with a start, as if someone had nudged him. Glancing at the clock, he was relieved to see he’d been asleep only 15 minutes. Damn, what if he’d missed Baxter? This could be his only opportunity; he couldn’t stay in Mission Viejo indefinitely. But another glance revealed the Audi still tucked into its space. And there, lumbering into sight, struggling with a golf bag slung over one shoulder, was none other than the doctor himself.
Baxter walked with a limp and looked even older than his Internet photo, which made Jerry happy. Jerry briefly fantasized that the man had been wracked with guilt over his misdiagnosis of Helen and who knew how many other patients. Or maybe karma had bestowed its own brand of justice on the doctor. Jerry shook his head. Probably not. The trouble with karma, in his experience, is it didn’t work fast enough.
As Baxter popped his trunk to stow the clubs, Jerry opened the car door and took a deep breath, trying to slow his heartbeat and calm his stomach. In that moment, all the words he’d been rehearsing disappeared from his brain. Well, at least he still had the element of surprise on his side.
“Hello Doc.” Jerry’s voice sounded a million miles away.
Baxter turned, his smile morphing into confusion. For a few seconds, the two men just stood there, until the shock of seeing Jerry after all these years, and out of context at that, finally registered. “Jerry? Jerry Barnes?” he said. “You’re the last person I expected to see. What brings you to Mission Viejo?” He offered his hand, but Jerry refused to shake. Baxter buried it in his pocket instead.
“You do,” Jerry said, the sun disappearing behind a cloud.
Baxter’s eyes narrowed. Instinctively, he took a step back. “I don’t understand.”
“I think you do. But let me explain. I’ve been struggling for the last five years to come to grips with Helen’s death. It knocked the legs right out from under me. I haven’t been living, just existing. Nothing to look forward to, just going through the motions. Even thought about eating a bullet, but I didn’t have the nerve. That’s no way to live. So I finally decided it’s time to get on with my life. Scott, you remember Scott; he talked me into seeing some motivational speaker who spoke about forgiveness and gratitude, that kind of crap. Normally I wouldn’t give a guy like that the time of day. But I’m so desperate, I figure what the hell, you know? And sure enough, he’s making sense. And now I’m forgiving everyone . . .” The words tumbling out of him now, half a decade’s worth. Two rows over, a car engine fired up and Jerry jumped.
“Jerry,” Baxter interrupted, all the color drained from his face.
“No, let me finish. You’re the last name on my list. And goddammit, for the life of me I can’t think of one reason to forgive you. Because if you’d just given a shit, just taken a little more time, maybe Helen would be alive today. But she’s not. And then you never even called, not one word, Bax. Not one. I didn’t need much. And you didn’t even give me that.” Jerry held back the tears. He’d be damned if he’d give Baxter the satisfaction.
“Jerry,” Baxter tried again, holding both palms out in an apologetic gesture. “You have no idea how many times I tried to reach out to you. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’ve never been good at admitting my mistakes. Ask my ex-wife. Ask my kids or business associates.” He smiled weakly but got nothing back. “I’m a shit, Jerry. I’ve always known it. And then the days and weeks and months flew by, and what am I gonna do, call from out of the blue and say ‘Hey, I was just thinking, I’m really sorry about Helen
. . .’”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what you could do.”
“Well, I’m not wired that way. And then it was years, and I sort of hoped you’d forget, or at least not hate me so much. But I never stopped thinking about it. Never.”
“And that’s supposed to make me feel better?” he said, unconsciously rubbing the bald spot on top of his reddening pate.
“No. But maybe this will. Even if we’d caught the cancer the first time you brought Helen to see me, it wouldn’t have made any difference.”
Now the torrent of tears broke through and Jerry was helpless to stop them. “Don’t,” was all he could say.
“It’s true. A few more months, perhaps. But months filled with surgery and chemo and radiation. No quality of life at all. And you’d be there by her side, watching her suffer. Is that what you wanted for your Helen?”
Jerry could only shake his head.
Baxter offered his hand again and as Jerry reached to take it, the doctor added, “So, in a way, I did you a favor.”
As Jerry’s fist dug deep into Baxter’s solar plexus, it made a noise like a small explosion. The doctor collapsed in a heap, a life-sized rag doll at Jerry’s feet.
“I forgive you,” Jerry said softly.
Driving out of the parking lot, Jerry realized the speaker was right. He hadn’t felt this good in years.