For twenty-two years I’ve carried a photograph in my memory. At first glance it is rather prosaic: Two young mothers sharing lunch in a sunny, well-organized kitchen. The conversation is lively and the smiles are genuine. The healthy baby in the highchair happily pinching cheerios between pointer and thumb and the healthy toddler on a blanket happily stacking rings onto a plastic post are both picture-perfect. There is no crying, no fussing, no trace of the awkwardness I was expecting.
Two-and-a-half years earlier we had both announced our pregnancies to our young-marrieds Sunday school class on the same day. And then she lost her baby.
My husband said it was too bad that it wasn’t me instead. My look of horror caused him to explain: “She isn’t handling it well, you’re stronger”, he said. Still.
I took the brunt of her “not handling it well”, probably because my growing belly was a weekly reminder of her loss. I’m still not sure what all “not handling it well” involved, but my spirit felt whatever it was, and I saw the looks and the whispers. I cut her lots of slack, though, because she was hurting and I knew it was going to take her some time to recover.
And then two-and-a-half years later she invited me to her house for lunch. She had, in the meantime, given birth to a beautiful baby girl. We had been cordial all this time in Sunday school, but we hadn’t been socializing outside of class the way we once did. Perhaps we were both afraid of tripping over the lumps under the rug. Which is why I expected lunch to be awkward.
But it wasn’t. She put a lovely plate of food in front of me, sat down across the table from me and said, “I want to apologize for my behavior. I was wicked. I said horrible, untrue things about you.” No hemming, no hawing, no excuses, no awkwardness whatsoever. Just a brave, confident apology. “You were hurting, I forgave you way back then.” And then we enjoyed a very pleasant lunch and play time with our daughters.
My cordial, walking-on-eggshells, I-forgive-you-but-I don’t-really-trust-you attitude toward her changed instantly and completely to one of high respect. We were friends again.
About ten years later I was sitting in the circle of a large non-denominational Bible study. There were women in attendance from many denominations, churches and surrounding cities. When it was my turn to introduce myself, the woman next to me bristled and muttered something very surprising under her breath.
Have you heard the sermon illustration about the woman who confessed gossip to her pastor? The pastor took her to the roof of the church with a feather pillow in hand. He slit the cover of the pillow allowing the feathers to swirl and scatter in the wind. Then he said, “I forgive you, now go pick up the feathers.”
The “horrible, untrue things” my friend said were still swirling all those years later. One had landed at some point on the woman next to me. That’s the problem with feathers scattered to the wind, it is impossible to go back and collect them all. I just smiled at her as if I had not heard her comment. I knew its source. And I wondered whether listening to gossip and believing it and allowing it to form your opinion of someone without actually verifying it isn’t just as sinful as generating it.
My friend moved to another state many years ago, before the Bible study incident, but we recently reconnected on Facebook. Every time I see her smiling face, I feel the same admiration for her that I felt in her tidy kitchen that day. No stray feathers will ever change that. And whenever my memory album flips open to that little picture, I am reminded of the enduring power of an apology.