Anne, after a cathartic talk with Ketaki Jayakar, came to the happy conclusion that forgiveness—towards herself as well as others—was the key to her liberation from guilt
My old friend Anne came visiting to India and stayed with me for 10 days. She has just crossed 70 but looks hardly 50, has the constitution of a farm horse, and still works eight hours a day in a huge departmental store in the U S . She is well- travelled, well-read, a very good dancer, and is a delight to have as a house guest. She lives with her daughter Melonie, son-in-law Javed, and their four children in the in-law apartment in the basement of her daughter’s house. Anne has been working since she migrated to the U S along with her husband Gautam and her two children about 35 years ago. Her husband could not get the job of his liking and so chose to remain without a job for all his life whilst Anne did all sorts of jobs to keep the home fires burning. Anne’s son Anil and his wife Tara were staying about five kilometres away. Anne, till now, was helping her daughter Melonie to drive the children home after school, feed them, oversee their studies, and take them for their classes. To be able to help with the children, Anne had taken this job where she had to report to work at 4:45 early morning. She finished at one o’clock in the afternoon so as to be in time to collect the children from school. Anne had been doing this gladly for the past several years.
Filing for divorce at 70
I was shocked to see Anne suddenly reduced by at least 10 kilos! The plump fairy godmother had suddenly turned into a Barbie doll. She arrived at my house well past midnight, and we were talking till the first rays of the sun. Anne had finally thrown in the towel and filed for separation from her husband of 45 years. The counsellor in me allowed her to talk non-stop; she just needed a sympathetic ear. She had done whatever had to be done and now she wanted a catharsis.
Her husband was a very pompous man and would either work as the boss or not work at all. It was alright for him to sit tight and eat the food laid on the table, but somebody had to put the food on the table and therefore earn the money to buy the food. Anne could not starve her children so she had put aside all the ego hassles and started working. Anne was a devout Catholic and believed in the sanctity of marriage. She had married Gautam against the wishes of her parents. Gautam was a practising Buddhist, to which she had no objection. She had chosen him with open eyes, much to the chagrin of her parents. Her parents had disinherited her.
The guilty conscious
The underlying guilt of having displeased her parents had weighed upon Anne all throughout her marriage. She had chosen Gautam and she was bound to honour her marriage vows. That Gautam was a useless husband, irresponsible father, and an arrogant ill-tempered person was her misfortune. She always felt that she alone was responsible for her situation. All her friends had married rich guys, and she was the only one working even after she was 70. But Anne, being the wonderful, cheerful human being that she is, never once complained about her predicament. She was happy to help her co-workers at the workplace, doubling up for any of the grandchildren’s friends’ mothers, doing hospital duties for Gautam’s equally pompous sisters, and giving any help needed in the community. Anne was indeed the Florence Nightingale her Catholic parents would have been proud of.
Anne would have carried on this routine had it not been for Gautam’s sudden violent behaviour. As years went by, there was hardly any communication between Gautam and Anne. Gautam always wanted to have the last word and tried to put down Anne in every possible way that he could. Every argument had to end in victory for him. Anne had got used to it. She always felt that she was suffering because she had displeased her parents.
She had forgotten the basic truth that she was lovable. Her guilt was a fear that once upon a time she was loveable but is not anymore. It was a story based on the past and was her mythology. She was using it to judge, criticise, reject, and blame herself.
Gautam had become more and more demanding. He was not earning a farthing, yet he wanted all the luxuries that he had once enjoyed when he was earning about 35 years ago. Because Anne had been meek and quiet, Gautam had taken her to be a doormat. He had become aggressive and would shout and scream at Anne even in front of the grandchildren. Anne’s daughter had problems with her alcoholic husband Javed, who had fathered her four children. Anne was attached to the grandchildren; the youngest was eight years old. She wanted peace at any cost. Anne was doing her duty to the best of her abilities; duty towards her husband, her children, grandchildren, and her husband’s family as well. Service before self was her motto. But one day, Gautam crossed the limits of civility. Anne had just returned from dropping the children off at their swimming pool. The elder grandson was sleeping at home, and her daughter and son-in-law were both at work. Gautam was an extremely untidy and messy person and would take things and not keep them back in their place. Anne was searching for her CDs and she just wondered to herself loudly as to where the CDs had gone. That was sufficient to throw Gautam into a fit of rage. He got up from the chair, which he assumed to be his throne, came near Anne and started boxing her face, eyes, and ears. Anne was stunned. He even picked up the heavy metal lamp which was on the side table and would have smashed it on her head had the survival instinct not galvanized Anne into action. She screamed and ran for her life. Anne’s physical fitness at the age of 70 stood her in good stead. Gautam was much older, heavier, and lethargic and could not run after her.
Anne was bruised by the punching on her face, eyes, and ears. She somehow found the cell phone, locked herself in the bathroom, and called her daughter who was at work. No response. She called her son. No response.
She called Gautam’s elder sister whom she had nursed to health after her cancer operation. The first thing the sister said was “Don’t tell this to anyone. My family name will be tarnished,” and hung up. She rang up the younger sister, whom Anne had been bailing out of financial troubles. She said not to tell her husband and hung up on her. Anne was dumbstruck. These were the very same people for whom she had put her own needs aside and selflessly helped without expecting any gains for herself. But this was what she got in return. She picked up the car keys and, with shaking hands, went to the doctor. She could not drive. She stopped on the road and called her store manager and told him about the physical assault by her husband. He told her to wait for him, then came immediately within 10 minutes and drove her to the doctor.
The doctor examined her and took an X-ray. She was badly bruised and her face had started to swell like a balloon. The doctor told her to report the matter to the police immediately. But our dear Florence Nightingale, who had always thought of others, refused to do so because she had a misconception that if the police were called they would take the grandchildren away from the abusive grandparents. But that is not the case; the police take away the minor children away from abusive parents, not grandparents.
All the co-workers were extremely supportive of Anne. Her hairdresser was the first one to offer her shelter. After Melonie returned from work and listened to this tale, the first thing she remarked was that Anne must have provoked her father to take such a drastic step because he was a very peace-loving man. The son-in-law had nothing to say. Her son too was very non-committal about the whole episode. He did not want to rock the boat. Anne’s brother too was very distant. In short, nobody was the least perturbed by what had happened. It came as a big shock to Anne to realize that when she was in need, none of her family members were there to support her. Well, now she had to accept the reality and plan her future.
Facing the reality
Was she going to continue to be Florence Nightingale for these ungrateful people or start living and spending her hard-earned money for herself? It took her a long time to fight with her own ideas and ideals which were fetters around her own feet, which she herself had fastened. She had indeed, selflessly, looked after her husband and would have continued to do so until her death. However, this incident had brought into open the mentality of her own people whom she had cared and gladly sacrificed for. In fact, her daughter had enquired with Anne’s brother as to how much property she had inherited from her parents. Anne was physically fit, was earning , and even if she stopped working, she was entitled to state pensions for the jobs she had done over the past 35 years. The state would provide her with an apartment in the assisted living facilities for seniors and she had lots of friends and well-wishers to love her (and who did not expect any favours from her). Did she really have to waste the remainder of her life bothering about what people would say or should she now take care of herself and do what she genuinely wanted to do?
This is the battle which rages within most of us. We are so culturally indoctrinated to put service towards family, and its honour before self, that we become laden with guilt if we think of ourselves first.
Anne too went through the same gamut of emotions. There was not an iota of remorse form Gautam; he continued to send her messages as usual for the goods he wanted from her departmental store: the expensive cheese, salads, pastries, toiletries, and his daily medicines. Can there be a one-way traffic in conjugal duties? Does only the wife have her duties towards the husband without any reciprocation from the husband? Gautam was an able-bodied man and there was no reason for him to not earn his bread. The children were settled and they had to manage their lives. The grandchildren were not her responsibility. Anne consulted a lawyer. As per their state laws, he advised her to go for legal separation and not a divorce. In a divorce, since the husband was not earning, he would be entitled to half her assets, whilst in a legal separation, the husband would not get anything. Anne filed for legal separation. It took her about six months to come to this decision.
Indulging in self-flagellation
However, the guilt of having failed her parents was still festering in Anne’s mind. She had always thought that she was being punished because she had displeased her parents. When she came to Mumbai, this guilt was burdening her. In today’s context, marrying outside one’s religion is not considered a sin. At the time of their marriage, Gautam was a highly successful and wealthy man. He had huge estates and was a decent man. He did not drink, gamble, or womanise. He was a good match. Because of their immigrating to the U.S., his whole attitude changed. He could not get a satisfactory job, could not get along with any employers, and then started blaming everyone for his predicament, expecting everyone to take care of him. There was no way whereby Anne could have foreseen this at the time of her marriage.
If her parents had perceived this marriage as sin, did she too embrace this viewpoint? This was the last burden on her soul. She had freed herself of the tentacles of familial duties, and she was struggling to get out of this web of the guilt of failing her parents. What she needed was an assurance and validation from a third person. I asked her whether she had objected to Melonie marrying a Muslim, Javed, or her Buddhist son Anil marrying a European Buddhist, Tara. The children had chosen their own destiny. Could she change their destiny even if she wanted to? I am a staunch believer in Karma. Anne had her past karmas to work out and, therefore, had to go through all this pain. She had not done anything illegal or immoral to shame her parents. If they insisted on feeling shattered by her marrying outside their religion, it was their way of looking at things. She had, in fact, been the one to look after her parents’ needs till their death. There was no reason for her to feel the guilt. This need to please her parents was the result of her pain of rejection by them. Her parents had doted on her other siblings, and she was just nobody for them. She had done all that she could after her marriage to please them, but they had not forgiven her. Now at the age of 70, when she had cut off all the emotional attachments with her husband and her family, the pain of parental rejection still festered like a thorn. The inner child in her needed healing.
I read out to her a passage from Life Loves You by Louise Hay:
Loving the inner child is about forgiving ourselves for our loss of innocence and loss of goodness. We all did our best with what we knew at every stage of our childhood and yet, we may still be judging ourselves for not having done it better or making mistakes,…for not being a good enough girl. Until we forgive ourselves, we will be trapped in a prison of righteous resentment. Forgiveness is the only way out of this prison. Forgiveness sets us free.
It could not happen overnight. However, she talked to me for hours together, and I tried to convince her that she had done no wrong by marrying outside her religion. Things take time. Ultimately, the breakthrough came suddenly. She decided to forgive her dead parents and even asked forgiveness from them. Forgiveness indeed set her free.
Anne left for the U.S. with a light heart full of love and forgiveness for her parents and herself. Now she is looking forward to a wonderful life in the U S with her friends, her jobs, her pensions, and her love for her own self.
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