Forgiveness is not a single act, but a practice as shown in author Karen Todd Scarpulla’s raw and heart-wrenching memoir, “Walking Toward the Light: A Journey in Forgiveness and Death.”
The Chicago author writes about the year she moved in with her ex-husband to care for him as he dies of esophageal and stomach cancer. She undertook this difficult task in order to give him the gift of time with his children and to give her children the opportunity to make each of the last days with their father count.
Throughout her memoir, she writes about how she needs to forgive her ex-husband, how she thinks she has, how she knows she hasn’t and how she keeps trying. It is a process, not a one-time act, to provide intimate end-of-life care for the narcissistic workaholic she divorced six years previously. At one point, the act of making dinner for a man whose cancer will eventually take away his ability to eat becomes a sacred gift:
“With every addition of [chicken] stock, I imagine pouring my love into the risotto. As I stir, I imagine breaking down the hurts and resentments from the past. I focus on the empathy I have for Vince. Preparing dinner tonight becomes a cathartic experience. I am filled with gratitude, grace and love.”
It’s stories like these that make memoir so fascinating to me. Surely Scarpulla’s message will help other caregivers who struggle to lovingly care for patients they may not like very much. Her ex-husband Vince comes off as a selfish jerk in the story and while one might criticize her for being bitter, I found the self-absorbed husband who refuses to step outside of his ego to be completely believable. But I wished Scarpulla would have tried harder to make him more likable. Why did she fall in love with him in the first place? What did all his supportive friends find appealing? Why in the world would she try to get her children to spend time with their inattentive father if he was so hurtful?
Other characters could have used more fleshing out, too, including Murphy, the dog who played an important role in the last night of Vince’s life but is barely mentioned before that.
When she does provide description and detail, Scarpulla’s writing was compelling but I think her use of present tense throughout the book ultimately undermined her message. At first, it provided immediacy to her story but by the end, it read like a diary that was all “tell” and no “show”: “I am so scared that Vince will begin to deteriorate this week, and I am not sure how I will accomplish everything. I am beginning to lose my composure. … I feel myself begin to unravel. I am trying so hard to take care of everyone and manage everything; there is no room left for work or sleep.”
While “Walking Toward the Light” has some literary faults, the story itself is awe-inspiring and worth the read.