Today, the man that ran over and killed my wife Christy was sentenced to one thousand hours of community service, and four days in jail. I attended the sentencing together with Christy’s sister. Right after it happened, three and a half years ago, I was told I would get a chance to speak to him during the sentencing. Today was that day. On the bus down to the court house, I wondered what I would say.
When I was in my early 20s, I called up a guy that had used to be my friend. Jørn was his name. I’m not exactly sure why I began being mean to Jørn, but I was. I spent years during elementary school tormenting him. As I got a little older the thought of what I had done to him started to bother me, and suddenly one day, I realized that instead of agonizing every day over what I put him through, I could just call him to apologize. When he answered the phone — which I was praying for him not to do — he heard me out, and probably said a few things, but what he said that I remember was something like, “It’s ok, I’m doing fine, my life is great, don’t worry about what you did, I always knew it was your own thing you were dealing with.”
I hope I thanked him, because when I hung up I remember the feeling as something like a wave that came rolling in, a kind of flood of forgiveness washing over me. It was very humbling. Then ten or so years later, Tomas Burnoski killed my wife by accident. I thought of what Jørn had done for me, and knew that I also had to forgive Burnoski. My Zen teacher asked me yesterday if I had ever driven drunk (Burnoski wasn’t). I said yes. He said, “then you could have killed someone too”.
On the way to the court house I thought about making something up on the spot, but figured it’d be better if I wrote something down, so that I would remember what to say if I got flustered. When I walked into the courtroom, I almost lost heart. I glanced at Burnoski, and his family and friends that were there, but it was hard to look at them. The formality with which the judge and the lawyers spoke made me think that this perhaps wasn’t the right time and place to say what I wanted, that maybe I should be more careful and measured. But then I thought, fuck it, just do it already, and this is what I said to him:
“I have also done stupid things in my life, I’ve driven recklessly, and if things had been just a little different I might have killed someone too. So in a certain way, I don’t think that we are that different.
But be that as it may, this is what has happened, and what has led us here right now. You’re the one that made your own mistake, and that has to live with the consequences of it. The last three years have been hard, for myself, for my family, and for all the people that loved Christy. My daughter will have to grow up without a mother. I have had to invent a new life for myself and become a new person.
In all of that, what has become clear to me is that sooner or later we all have to face the reality that we will lose everything and everyone we care about, and that when the time comes, we all have to die alone.
I’m sad that you killed my wife, and maybe I always will be, but I don’t hold any anger towards you, and I forgive you for what you did. I hope that you will take that into your heart, and eventually be able to forgive yourself as well.
This world being the way it is, I think it’s best if we spend our days loving each other, doing what we can to be a force of good. Thank you.”
Christy’s sister stood up and told her story of the loss of her sister, and her and her mother’s own paths to forgiveness someday. Then Burnoski stood up and told his story, saying that when he was in his early thirties, my age, he also became a single parent, having to take care of a seven month old daughter by himself, not knowing how to do it. Bottle feeding her, reading her books at night until she fell asleep. He wondered how in God’s name he could have brought the same thing upon me, and asked me for forgiveness.
The veils that separate us are very thin.
As I walked over to the court house before the sentencing, I thought of the new woman that I have met, that I haven’t been able to love in the way that I have wanted to. I thought of the very simple thing that when you have something in your hand, before you can pick up something else, you have to let go of the first thing. There are moments then in this life, when we need to stand empty handed.
As the court proceedings wrapped up, I felt like I needed to go over to him and make a physical gesture of what I had just said. Sometimes it is easy for me to use big words, but it’s always a different thing to put something into action. So I walked over and shook his hand, then I gave him a hug and told him it was ok. I did it for myself as much as for him, I think. Laying down our stones together, maybe.
I don’t intend this as a story of how I am a a great person that made the right choices, although I am proud of what I did. Stories such as this one are not ones we tell each other very often, and I think they are worth telling.
Thank you Jørn, for being a great man.