Forgiveness Given, Forgiveness Denied

My sister's death has taught me the urgency of seeking and offering forgiveness.We do not know when death will come for us. The weight of forgiveness withheld is a terrible burden to leave for others.

Ruthie Leming was the kindest, most patient, and most generous woman I have ever known – except to me, her older brother.

“I don’t know why, Rod, but it really was true,” Ruthie’s best friend confided to me after her death. It’s a mystery to my parents, too. But they, and all those closest to my sister, knew it was real.

Ours was an emotionally complicated relationship. I teased her a lot as a kid. In one instance from early in our childhood, our father was planning to deliver one of his rare spankings for something mean I had done to Ruthie. As I lay on the bed ready to receive the spanking I deserved, she threw herself across my back and begged our dad to spank her instead.

This little girl, who couldn’t have been more than four or five at the time, demanded to take my punishment for something I had done to her. That was Ruthie.

But Ruthie was also the kind of person who, once she made up her mind about someone or something, never changed it. After I moved away from Louisiana in 1992 in pursuit of my journalism vocation, Ruthie hardened her heart towards me. I was the brother who betrayed the family by leaving it. Slowly but perceptibly, the distance between us grew.


Over the years, when I would visit, I could sense the tension between us. I wanted to talk about it, to work it out. Shouldn’t brothers and sisters be able to do that? Shouldn’t Christians? But Ruthie wouldn’t have it. She hated to have emotional conversations.

Days after her terminal cancer diagnosis in 2011, I sat with her in the sunshine of her front porch, and asked her to forgive me every bad thing I had done to her over the years. I wanted to put our past behind us, to talk about the ways we had hurt each other, and to speak words of penitence and mercy to each other.

Again, she wouldn’t have it. It was too hard to say these things. She waved my words away, offered none of her own, and embraced me. We cried on each other’s shoulder, and I thought this was her way of apologizing and forgiving.

I returned home to Philadelphia and got busy contacting estranged friends and family members, told them that Ruthie’s cancer compelled me to re-think my own life and actions, and asking them to forgive me the wrongs I had done them. The walk of life is too hard to undertake carrying grudges.

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