It’s a familiar story: young men barely out of high school are horsing around with a car/loaded gun/case of grain alcohol/unsafe balcony or some combination thereof, and one of them ends up dead. In the local story it was two 20-year-old “men” fooling around with a loaded pellet gun and smoking synthetic marijuana four days before Christmas. One shot the other, who died of internal injuries. They were roommates, they were close friends, and I suspect that neither of them had any idea that you could actually kill someone with a pellet gun.
As the mother of a fifteen-year-old boy I read the original reports of this tragedy thinking that, given the inherent stupidity of most young men, I could easily be the mother of the shooter or the victim. My son is not of the “no thank you, Ned; if I have a drink my mum will be cross” variety. He is a full-tilt, incautious, heedless, energetic, juvenile embracer of dumb ideas, and also a person who has difficulty saying “no” if it disappoints a friend. When the death occurred, I read the news stories and imagined myself first as the mother of the shooter and then as the mother of the victim. It was not a stretch in either case. It made me weep, then, sitting on the couch in my pajamas. I wept for the family whose son was so foolishly lost, I wept for the boy sitting in jail having shot his best friend, and I wept because it is such a terrifying, uncertain thing to love a child growing up and away from the perceived shelter of home.
This morning there was a story about the sentencing in the case. The shooter was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to at least three years in prison plus thousands of dollars in restitution. This seemed fair, if somewhat sad; manslaughter encompasses causing the death of another without intention but while acting recklessly. A crime was committed, and the law of this jurisdiction requires that the guilty party be punished.
As it turns out, the shooter had a very difficult early life. He was placed in foster care at the age of 8, returned by the fostering family and then placed with a foster parent who was convicted of photographing minors and selling their pictures on the internet. This was a kid who never had much of a chance, and whose bond with the victim was probably the most sustaining and important relationship in his life. The judge, a wise woman with children of her own, gave the lightest possible sentence because in her opinion it was “what the victim would have wanted.” They were friends, they were both smoking the same stuff and playing with the same gun, and it could have gone either way.
Then there was the part of the story that stopped me cold. The victim’s mother was quoted as saying that the shooter should have received the maximum sentence, and that she had not wanted her son to move in with him because of his background. “He told me ‘he’s not that bad, mom’” she said. I got that part. I imagined my own son moving in with the kind of “sad case” friend he has been making since second grade. Would I try to stop him? I might, if I thought that there was something in the other young man’s baggage that was dangerous. If he had a record of violence, if I knew there was a substance abuse issue, or even if there was a high likelihood of appearances by sketchy family members I would try to dissuade him.
Then there’s that other thing. If something terrible, unimaginable happened and I lost my own boy in a similar accident would I want maximum retribution? Would it make me feel better for even a single second to know that some other boy was spending years in prison? I can’t know, but I’m pretty sure that retribution would not bring me a moment’s peace. I have never felt that impulse for revenge, even when I have been grievously wronged and had every right to wish for my pain to be felt by the wrongdoer. It’s not religious doctrine, or ethics that shapes my feelings; it’s a matter of hard wiring. I am a forgiver, always conscious of my own failings and transgressions. Often, in my experience, the person who harms me is driven by demons so insidious and cruel that refusing forgiveness would be both pointless and immoral. It would not hurt that person, and it would not help me to heal.
And so I can still look at this tragedy and say to myself “there but for the grace of God goes my family.” I have wept again, for the boy sitting in prison with nothing but time to think about the fact that he killed his best friend, and I have wept for the family that lost a son. I have faced again the reality that we cannot wrap our beloved children in bubble wrap and protect them from the dangers of this world. I have felt wrenching pity for a woman who genuinely believes that her sorrow would be assuaged by an eye for an eye, the lost life of another boy to compensate her for the hole in her own grieving heart. I have, I admit, judged her for failing to see that the shooter is also a victim in need of love and compassion.
It is impossible to imagine the savage pain that woman feels, or how blindly she grasps for anything that might give even a moment of relief. Perhaps, in time, she will see that there is still a boy, a living boy who has no family and whose life might be immeasurably improved by forgiveness. Maybe her heart will remain hard, and the scab of bitterness and anger will make her feel safe and righteous in a world she no longer recognizes.
I don’t understand her, but I forgive her.