Wednesday, March 01, 2006

From the Interlude: Daniel's Death, in Free of Charge - giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace, by Miroslav Volf. The book is the Archbishops' Official 2006 Lent Book, and was published by Zondervan in 2005

Forty-seven years after the accident, I was finally piecing together one part of the puzzle I thought I already knew. My most beloved nanny, Aunt Milica as I called her, the angel of my early childhood whom I adored until her death at the age of ninety-one, was in charge of us kids when it happened. I was one then, and my five-year-old brother, Daniel, had slipped through the large gate in the courtyard where we had an apartment. He went to the nearby small military base - just two blocks away - to play with 'his' soldiers. On earlier walks through the neighbourhood, he had found some friends there - soldiers in training, bored and in need of diversion even if it came from an energetic five-year-old.

On that fateful day in 1957, one of them put him on a horse-drawn bread wagon. As they were passing through the gate on a bumpy cobblestone road, Daniel leaned sideways and his head got stuck between the door post and the wagon. The horses kept going. He died on the way to hospital - a son lost to parents who adored him, and an older brother that I would never know.

Aunt Milica should have watched him. But she didn't. She let him slip out, she didn't look for him, and he was killed. But my parents never told me that she was partly responsible.

'Should I have told you?' my mother [asked].

'Most people would,' I thought. When terrible things happen, people find someone to blame even when there's no one to blame. Somebody must be at fault, they think, and they go on to make the first plausible candidate into a culprit. Aunt Milica was to be blamed. Yet neither of my parents blamed her in front of their own children. Aunt Milica, the guilty one, remained my untainted angel. This mother of mine...is a saint. [She] had buried four of her six children - three died in her own womb, and the fourth was killed because those in charge were irresponsible and stupidly careless. My mother's pain was immeasurable, and it did not go away even half a century later. She would talk of Daniel's death on occasions, always mentioning with deep sadness that the night before he was killed, Daniel had asked to sleep in her bed. He slept restlessly, and she slept lightly, even when she was exhausted by factory work, so she denied him what was to be his last wish.

The pain of the terrible loss still lingers on, but bitterness and resentment against those who were responsible are gone. It was healed at the foot of the cross as my mother gazed on the Son who was killed and reflected about the God who forgave. Aunt Milica was forgiven, and there was no more talk of her guilt, not even talk of her having been guilty. As far as I was concerned, she was innocent.

But my parents did speak often of forgiveness in relation to Daniel’s death. In fact, the first lesson in forgiveness I remember lay in the story of how they forgave the soldier who was the main culprit. ‘The Word of God tells us to forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us,’ said my parents, ‘and so we decided to forgive.’ The soldier felt terrible, so terrible in fact that he had to be admitted to the hospital. My father, with a wound in his heart that would never quite heal, went to visit him, to comfort the one whose carelessness had caused him so much grief, and tell him that my mother and he forgave him.

In the courtroom too, my father insisted that he and my mother, who was too brokenhearted to take part in the hearing, had forgiven. They wouldn’t press charges, he said. Why should one more mother be plunged into grief, this time because the life of her son, a good boy but careless in a crucial moment, was ruined by the hands of justice. After the soldier was discharged from the army and went home unpunished, my father visited him even though it took him two days to make the trip. He was concerned for the soldier and wanted to talk to him once more of God’s love, which is greater than our accusing hearts, and of my parents’ forgiveness.
The reason why my parents forgave was simple. God forgave them, and so they forgave the soldier. But the forgiveness itself was difficult, and for my mother, excruciatingly painful. I will revisit the pain of my mother’s forgiveness [later]. My father never talked about how it felt forgiving a person who killed his boy; he never talked much about how anything felt, though he was a deeply sensitive man. But that forgiveness must have cost him a great deal too, possibly no less than it cost my mother.
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