Our younger brother usually played with Jan because the two were closer in age, but once in a while, he hung out with me. Unlike Jan, he went along with anything I suggested. One cold early fall day, he and I holed up in the corn crib with a bucketful of rotten tomatoes. When Jan wanted to join us, I pelted her with the tomatoes. My brother reluctantly threw one. Jan ran inside to tell Dad what we had done, so Dad made my brother and me stand in place while he and Jan let fly with the rest of the tomatoes. “How do YOU like it?” he said. Not so much, dad. Lesson learned.
As Jan and I got older, unlike Edith and Mary, we began to find things to appreciate in one another. Jan had a wicked sharp sense of humor. She was a terrific artist. I asked her to illustrate a poetry magazine I edited in high school, and she appreciated the positive attention she got for her fine pencil drawings. A couple of months before I graduated high school, my sister and I took baby steps toward a grownup way of interacting. We shopped together. We hung out. We laughed. I hoped Jan and I would continue to grow closer.
Jan finished high school. She got a job at a fast-food restaurant. She started college. She met a man. She fell in love. She stopped doing art. She dyed her hair blonde and began intense dieting. She dropped out of college. She moved in with the man. And one day he beat her up.
I didn’t know. She didn’t tell me, and I didn’t think to ask. I could never have predicted that the spitfire I grew up with would let anybody hit her without paying him back in triplicate. Jan’s infrequent letters were full of chit-chat: how her job was going, how cute their trailer looked. Her letters never said she missed days of work because
Finally, Mom told me what was going on. I went to visit my sister. It was tense in their trailer. Jan told me Dick (not his real name, but the shoe fits) timed her whenever she went for takeout. He constantly accused her of cheating on him. She walked on eggshells around him. She strove to please him. She fit every textbook description I’d ever read of an abused woman, which I haltingly pointed out and which she angrily denied.
I invited her up to visit me for a weekend. Dick gave permission, even though I lived 300 miles away. While she was there, I cut my hand on a glass I was washing. I asked Jan to take me to the hospital. She refused, because, she said, “I never get to be alone.” I drove myself to the hospital with a dishtowel wrapped around my bleeding digit, but instead of feeling bewildered about why she didn’t take me in for stitches, I should have seen that she was so desperate for peace she’d grab it any time it came along. That weekend was our last good time together.
The family tried not to badger Jan about leaving her situation but also reassure her that any time she wanted to escape, we would help. But Jan said she had married Dick and that was that. If she gave in to our meddling, she would break her marriage vows. I said he broke his vow to love her every time he hit her. No, she said, he didn’t mean it. No, she would not leave him.
She found two ways to escape without leaving. She began to suffer mental problems when her husband beat her. She told Mom that sometimes when Dick beat her, she felt her mind floating above her body, allowing her to see Dick’s fists pummeling her without having to feel the pain or sense the damage he was doing to her body. She would wake up later, bruised and bloody, and he would apologize, and they would have a honeymoon period of bliss until it happened again. And again. She began to drink, her second means of escape. Alcohol poured on that situation was gasoline on a flame.
They had a child. When Dick abused the child, Jan finally decided she had to get out. She typed up for the judge a record of the abuse she’d suffered, which read like a police blotter. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that she’d endured things that shouldn’t happen to anybody, let alone the sister I’d shared weeknight suppers and Sunday dinners with for 17 years.
Jan and Dick divorced. We thought it was over.
But some time after the divorce was final, Dick came to her house and beat her and threw her down the basement stairs. She was in a coma for long, horrible weeks. She suffered permanent brain damage. The beating knocked her eye loose so it looked out at a different angle from the other eye. She could handle only menial jobs, which she lost one after another because she kept drinking. She telephoned my mother several times a day and my brother several times a week. Her diet was horrible. She hid cash under furniture cushions and was robbed more than once by “friends.” Her gait was unsteady, and we worried about her falling down the exterior stairs she had to climb to reach her second-floor walk-up. Her life centered on old TV shows and booze and cigarettes. She began to suspect that the FBI was spying on her, and when I laid out logical reasons that was unlikely, she began to suspect I was in cahoots with them.
Over time, in Jan’s mind, my failure to prevent or end her suffering morphed into deliberate malice on my part. I became somebody to blame. If I hadn’t been so mean when we were growing up; if I hadn’t left home right after graduation; if I’d been more of a friend; if I’d paid her more positive attention; if I’d written or visited oftener—if I’d been a better sister—her life would have turned out better.
Her physical and mental condition deteriorated to a point where Mom found an assisted living facility for her. My brother and I boxed up her stuff and loaded it into the moving van. The day we moved her out, we started to wash down the walls of her apartment, sticky with nicotine residue. My brother scrubbed just a small section of wall before declaring the whole place would have to be professionally cleaned, particularly since cockroaches had built their own Atlantic City under her stove and no self-respecting bacteria would have been caught dead in her toilet.
Jan resented Mom and me for "making" her move. Not my brother, of course, because he was only following orders. Not our father, who, by that time, had passed away. Not Dick, who never was brought to justice for what he had done, unlike this abuser.
Unfortunately, moving my sister into a nicer place did not move her into a happier frame of mind. She ignored her doctor’s orders. She stopped taking her medication. Her body began to fail. A large, laminated poster I’d given her to brighten up her new place she used instead to slide across the carpet from place to place because her legs stopped working. A new chair Mom had bought for Jan became soaked with urine. By December 2008, Jan was in the hospital. She was done being unhappy.
My brother and I went to see her. We stood on either side of her bed, each of us holding one of her hands. She had lost much of her hair. Her face was puffy. Her skin was the color of old parchment. We listened to the machines that breathed for her, that drained her bladder, that pumped nourishment through a tube into her stomach. We listened to the December wind blowing under the eaves outside. We spoke softly: “Remember when we built that fort in the haymow? Remember that time Penny and Shirley rode their horses all the way to our place? Remember the kittens?”
She opened her eyes. She saw and heard her brother. She saw and heard me.
Then she did something completely in character that surprised me anyway: she threw away my hand and clasped our brother’s hand with both of her own. “I do not forgive you,” her gesture said.
Jan died a couple of days later, the day after Christmas 2008. She was 50 years old. We buried her two days later in the pajamas I’d bought her for Christmas and a cap I’d sewed to cover her poor bald head. I wish she'd felt able to forgive me before she died.
I never expected to share my sister's story, but forgiveness has been on my mind lately because of something going on in my city: the county treasurer and his secretary recently were convicted of having stolen $1.39 million of taxpayer money from the county treasurer’s office between 2001 and 2013. Two weeks ago, a front-page story in the local paper indicated that the ex-treasurer and ex-secretary were hoping that the judge in their case would be lenient when he sentenced them.
They wanted forgiveness. They wanted mercy.
Four days after that story appeared, letters to the editor indicated that some taxpayers did not feel mercy was warranted. One letter writer said, “They had excellent employment, insurance, benefits and retirement that many of us can only imagine. They betrayed the public trust…They did not steal for need but for greed.” Another said, “As they ask for leniency, we should be reminding ourselves of the old saying, ‘If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.’ ” A third writer said, “Throw the book at them.”
Clearly, showing mercy is not natural. Our first instinct is to lash out when we're hurt. Mercy and forgiveness go against that instinct, which may have been why Jesus said we should turn the other cheek when we're wronged. If we can forgive others as we have been forgiven, we're living the Golden Rule.
Shakespeare considers the matter of mercy in The Merchant of Venice. In the play, a Jewish moneylender named Shylock demands gruesome interest if a loan isn’t repaid: a “pound of flesh” carved from the man who guaranteed the loan, Antonio, Shylock’s enemy. When the loan comes due, Shylock takes Antonio to court to demand his pound of flesh. An attorney urges Shylock to show mercy and reminds Shylock that everybody needs to be cut some slack now and again,
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown…
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy….” (IV.i.179–197)
But even though Shylock is offered twice what he is owed, he insists on extracting his pound of flesh. The attorney tells Shylock to start carving, but that the contract doesn’t say anything about blood, so if Shylock spills one drop of blood or takes one iota more than a pound, he must forfeit all his lands and goods under Venetian law. Shylock changes his mind, but it's too late.
The duke shows mercy to Shylock, but it’s a vindictive kind of mercy: Shylock must convert to Christianity, he must bequeath his entire estate to his daughter and her Christian husband, and he can never loan money to anybody ever again. Shylock’s costly lesson is that if you want mercy for yourself, you have to show mercy to others.
In my town, regarding the money stolen by the county treasurer, the judge was not merciful. He sentenced the treasurer to nine and a half years in prison, which will become a longer term if restitution isn’t made. The secretary will be sentenced in March. In his remarks, the sentencing judge said, “Misconduct creates cynicism...To say it spits on the face of democracy is an understatement. If we can’t trust public officials…we have anarchy.” The threat of punishment is supposed to keep people on the right side of the law, so if people choose to do wrong anyway, society must follow through with the promised punishment. Right?
But what about mercy? Mary shows no mercy to Edith, nor does Edith show mercy on the rare occasions she has the upper hand. Shylock shows no mercy, so none is shown to him. I thought I was doing my best for my sister, but she couldn't forgive me for not doing enough.
The next time I'm in the position to extend forgiveness and mercy, I hope I will remember that a pound of flesh isn't worth it. I hope I will remember what it is to have my hand flung away by a dying woman who can never take hold of it again.
Rest in peace, little sister. I hope you are finally happy.