“Life is hard,” my Grandma would tell me. “Eventually someone will hurt you. When that happens, you get to decide: fight back, or forgive. It’s up to you. What will you do?”
As a kid, I played baseball in the field behind my Grandma’s house. We played every day, all day, and each day for lunch, my Grandma made us her world-famous peanut butter sandwiches. These were beautiful: a single piece of toast with a thin layer of peanut butter spread on top. That’s simple enough, but what made them special was she wrote your name into the peanut butter so you knew THIS one was yours.
One day, we went down to our field, but no one could find a ball. “No problem,” I said. “My Grandma has one. I’ve seen it. She keeps it in a plastic case on her bookshelf.”
I snuck into the house, removed the ball from its case without making a sound, and went back down to the field to play. A few hours later, Grandma came out, asking to see the ball.
What I didn’t know was this ball was a gift from my Grandpa. He’d got it signed by Ted Kluszewski, Grandma’s favorite Red, when he was on a business trip some years ago. As the story goes, Grandpa carried that ball with him everywhere that trip. He was so excited to give it to her.
Only he never got the chance. Grandpa had a heart attack and died in hotel room. They found the ball in his suitcase, his last gift to her. Now, because of me, it was covered in dirt and scuff marks. The signature was gone. When I handed it to my Grandma, she started to cry.
“Life is hard,” I thought. “Eventually someone will hurt you.” I heard that speech hundreds of times growing up, but I never thought I would hurt Her.
The next day was rough. I struck out six times before lunch break and, when everyone went up for their sandwiches, I hung back, sitting on a swing set nearby. I was too ashamed to go in. Grandma came out later and sat next to me.
“I’m sorry, Grandma,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “I have something for you.” She gave me a plate with two peanut butter sandwiches on it. The first one said my name. The second: I forgive you. I took that sandwich like communion and smiled. Grandma smiled, too, and just like that, everything was alright. All the guilt I felt, all the pain I caused melted away with those three beautiful words: I forgive you. It felt like freedom.
Later that day, we put the ball back in its case, scuff marks and all. You could still see hints of the signature if you looked close enough. We knew it was there, hiding somewhere underneath the dirt, and that made all the difference.
Baseball and forgiveness are sticky, like a peanut butter sandwich. They stick with you. This story has stuck with me most of my life. We’d mention it every now and again at Family dinners, holidays, or when watching a Reds game on television and someone with big arms and cropped sleeves came to the plate. Grandma would pull the ball out at the start of each season to remind that, while baseball is fun, there are sometimes things that matter more.
This lesson came back to me a few years ago. Grandma was out for a drive one day, when someone ran a stoplight at twice the speed limit and broadsided her. The paramedics worked frantically to save her, but she died on the way to the hospital. The other driver, a college kid named Emily, walked away from the accident without a scratch.
We all struggled with this; my mom in particular. For weeks, she couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, had even taken to stalking this kid Emily on the Internet. “She’s on Facebook!” she’d say. “She’s on Twitter,” she’d say. “Have you seen these pictures? Have you seen her smile?! WHY DOES SHE GET TO BE HAPPY?”
Sometimes life just isn’t fair. Is it?
A few months later, the local high school had a traffic safety seminar and Emily was listed as one of the speakers. You better believe we went. Mom was oddly quiet about it, but the rest of us? We wanted to see this Monster face to face. But I think something changed, for all of us, when Emily got up to speak.
“The worst part,” she said, “wasn’t losing my license or the nightmares, or even the physical pain that comes with having been in an accident. No. The worst part was knowing I had taken someone’s friend, someone’s mother, someone’s Grandma.”
A little kid raised his hand. “What would you say if you could talk to her today?”
“I’d tell her I’m sorry,” Emily said. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
What we saw, in that moment, was Emily wasn’t this Monster we’d made her out to be. She was a scared kid, sitting alone on her own swing set, just like me when I was a kid. Only now, there was no one to come out, sit next to her, and make it all better.
Afterward, my Mom introduced herself. “The woman you killed was my mother.”
Emily lowered her head in shame, but my Mom didn’t stop there. “I heard what you said, and if SHE were here, she’d want you to have this.” Mom reached into her purse, and pulled out a little baggie with two peanut butter sandwiches in it. On the first one, she wrote the name Emily. On the second: I forgive you.
Emily took that sandwich like communion and smiled. Mom smiled, too, and just like that, everything was alright. They couldn’t bring my Grandma back, but both women could finally move on. That’s what forgiveness does. It lets you move on. It makes you free.
You can’t lead a life of peace unless you’re willing to forgive, and that’s what my Grandma taught us. That’s what she left us: a beautiful legacy of forgiveness for me, my Mother, my friends on the baseball field, even Emily. I keep the dirty baseball with Ted Kluszewski’s ghost signature on a shelf in my office as a reminder of that legacy.
And, now, all of those who’ve shared in that legacy would like to pass it on to you. Life is hard, eventually someone will hurt You. When that happens, you get to choose. Will you fight back? Or will you share the beauty and the freedom of baseball, forgiveness, and peanut butter sandwiches?