"Forgive me for interrupting, but are you going to buy anything?" It was a loud question in a provocative voice, but it seemed to have no effect on Sunshine Bristow. Sunshine was standing in aisle 7 of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Mattaponi, Virginia, staring at a shelf full of cheese doodles and pork skins. To all the other shoppers on aisle 7 it appeared as if she was just having difficulty making up her mind between the baked and the fried doodles, but far more serious questions were on Sunshine Bristow's mind -- she was thinking about death and forgiveness and God, all in the middle of the chip and dip section. But because she was standing so close to the shelves, it was beginning to frustrate her fellow shoppers, including the one who intruded so loudly on her thoughts.
"Sunshine, excuse me, but I just need to get a bag over here if you don't mind."
The second interruption was enough to shake Sunshine out of her reverie. With a start she realized that she was in the way. "Oh, I'm sorry, Yolanda. Guess I was just lost in my thoughts here." Yolanda Perkins grunted, grabbed some barbecue pork skins from the shelf and shuffled on down the aisle.
Sunshine was in deep thought because her father was lying in a bed in the small hospital in the little town of Mattaponi. She had just gotten the word from her sister, Benita, that he had been admitted with severe chest pains. They seemed to have ruled out a heart attack, but he was being held for observation. And for the first time in seven years, Sunshine Bristow was contemplating whether she might go to visit her father.
Despite her name, Sunshine was generally not a very happy person. She had come to adulthood bearing the scars of a rugged childhood. She had lost a brother in a car accident when she was only eleven. School and friendships were both equally difficult for her after that. And at sixteen she ran away from home, only to return six months later battered and bruised and suffering from a drug addiction.
But worst of all, through everything, she had sensed an overwhelming absence of love. Her family had coped with the loss of her brother by wrapping his memory in a blanket of silence. Yet the memory remained like a chilly draught that finds it way through the tiniest cracks and which cannot be stopped. Her mother had tried to fill the emptiness with a kind of cheer and blind optimism, but it lingered -- especially with her father.
Sunshine could not remember one time that her father had held her or hugged her or offered even a word of affection. Any memories she had of earlier times in his arms had been suffocated by the family's secret and her father's icy silence. And even now, twenty years later, she still felt it -- that anger at her father that festered like an open wound. She prayed to a God she hoped was there that she might be forgiven for her dark feelings of resentment and regret.
But now her father was in the hospital, having faced death, and she was wondering if she should go. And as she passed the frozen foods on aisle 8, she knew that she would.
She rushed home to change clothes. For some reason she felt like she needed to be dressed up, at least a little bit. She found a favorite dress, brushed her hair and then opened the drawer for a hair clip. Her hand brushed across a small object and she paused. It was an ancient black pocketknife with a small brass plate monogrammed with the initials B.B. Sunshine lifted it from the drawer, felt its weight, and dropped it into a pocket in her dress.
Ten minutes later she was at the Mattaponi Hospital. She stood outside the door to her father's room for a minute with her hand on the knob. Years of injustices flashed by in her mind's eye. Could she bear to have him see her? She drew a deep breath and walked in.
Her sister Benita was sitting by the bed on the far side next to the window. She was holding her father's hand and smiling with the same weary, cheery smile her mother used to give. Sunshine's father was propped up uncomfortably, frowning at Wheel of Fortune on the small hospital television set. Benita brightened up as soon as she saw her sister. Her father didn't.
"Sunshine! I'm so glad you came!" Benita said. "I think we've got some good news. It wasn't his heart. They've run some tests to be sure but they think it's gall stone or something."
Bert Bristow was not so cheerful. "Might as well have been a heart attack. It felt just as bad."
Sunshine turned to look at her father and she saw the same tight lips and deep wrinkles in his forehead, but he was much paler and thinner than she remembered. And older. She wanted to say something, but she didn't know what to say or even how she felt. Bert took care of that for her.
"Well, Sunshine, it seems like bad news brings out everybody. You're dressed like you're ready for my funeral."
Suddenly the emptiness came flooding back into her only to be filled by a wave of anger. "Daddy, that's not fair and you know it."
"I do? Seven years I don't see you and now you show up at my deathbed? What did you come to see?"
"I came to -- I came hoping that maybe... " Sunshine's tears began to flow freely now and she said, "Whatever it was, Daddy, I should have known better." And with that she ran from the room.
Benita found her downstairs at the small snack counter off the front lobby. She was sitting on the far stool staring at a cup of coffee. Between her fingers she played with the ancient black pocketknife. The tears had stopped to be replaced by a look of weariness in her eyes.
"I'm sorry he treated you that way, Sunshine. You know how he is."
"Yes, I know. And I guess that's why I came."
"What do you mean?" Benita asked.
"I knew he was a cold and calloused old cuss and that he never cared a lick for me, but I was just hoping that... you know, with this attack and all..." Her voice trailed off so Benita finished for her.
"You were hoping he might have seen a great light and suddenly discovered how lucky he was to be alive and to have two fantastic daughters like you and me?"
"Yes. That's it exactly." Sunshine looked at her sister with a half-Ã¯Â¿Â½smile. Benita was only two years older than she was but she had always seemed more wise than her years. "Benita, I wanted to believe that he loved me and that he could change. I thought maybe if he could change then I could let go of all this anger inside of me."
Benita noticed the object in her hands for the first time. "Sunshine! Where did you get that?"
"Daddy's pocketknife! He loved that knife! Don't you remember how he used to pull it out every night and fiddle with little blocks of wood? He was so upset when it disappeared. Where did you find it?"
"I didn't find it, Benita. I stole it."
"Yeah, I stole it. And I've kept it ever since. TwentyÃ¯Â¿Â½ years I've kept it."
"But, Sunshine, why?"
"Because... because when he came to see me at the drug treatment center... I'll never forget it, Benita. I was so scared and so confused and I needed him so much. He came on visiting day and he walked into the lounge of the center and he stared at me. He never said a word. He just stared. And the look on his face was so... cold. Then he left. When I needed him the most, he left. And when I got home, I stole his knife."
"Now I look at this knife every day and I know that I hurt Daddy. I know I did. I try to forgive him and I try to forgive myself. But I just can't let go of the hurt and the anger. And isn't that what forgiveness is all about?"
Benita was quiet for a long time. She looked down at the counter and flicked away a crumb left by a previous customer. Finally she looked at her sister again. "Sunshine, I don't know whether having a face-Ã¯Â¿Â½to-Ã¯Â¿Â½face meeting with mercy is going to change Dad or not. Probably not. There's too much pain there -- the pain of losing his son -- the pain of feeling like a failure at life."
"But I do know that sometimes it's not so much being forgiven as learning how to forgive that changes people and makes them realize that God is there. It's not easy. And it doesn't mean we go around saying 'let bygones be bygones' or that we gloss over the pain. God knows I've done my share of screaming and yelling because of Dad. And I'm not there yet. "
"Forgiveness isn't something you can do all at once and then mark it down on some 'been there, done that' list, Sis. It's a process. And it takes time. And I've changed a lot more than Dad has. But, you know what? It's worth it."
And without another word Benita looked into her sister's eyes and gave her a smile that no longer seemed forced, but deep and genuine. Then Benita got up and walked back out of the snack bar.
A few hours later Bert Bristow woke up from a nap in his stuffy little hospital room. He looked at the TV, which was still on. he stared out the window at the sodium lights in the hospital parking lot. He turned to his nightstand for a drink of water. There, next to the pitcher, was an ancient black pocketknife with a small brass plate monogrammed with his initials B.B.
Jesus said, "Not seven times -- not seventy times seven -- but from your heart you must forgive." And it's not easy. And it's a process that takes some time. But the consequences of remaining unforgiving or unforgiven are too great to bear. In a world of pain, forgiveness is a gift. Thanks be to God.