Forgiving you is my work; the rest is up to you

Forgiving you is my work; the rest is up to you
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My mom died as a result of a doctor error during an outpatient gall bladder surgery. I’ve written about it here and here. The doc, I call her Dr. Smith, lost surgical privileges for about five years, except for breast surgery. Two things about this bother me: “five years” and “except for breast surgery.” I’ve always felt that some “errors” are bad enough that a doc should lose the right to practice. Period. I’m certain that the women whose breasts she has since performed surgery on were unaware of my mother’s needless death.

If a truck driver, in the midst of a bipolar mania, crashes her truck into a car and kills the occupant, she can be indicted for murder. Truck driving is inherently dangerous, but getting behind the wheel when you’re impaired means that you can be charged with a crime and be punished. The same is not true for doctors. I know you’ll tell me that you’ve heard of just such a thing happening, but I can tell you that it’s very rare.

Before moving to New Mexico, this doctor had lost privileges to practice in Colorado. I don’t know the story there. It’s almost impossible to find out, but I suspect my mother is not the only person to have died or suffered great loss because of Dr. Smith. Who knows how many have suffered since?

In any case, it won’t surprise you to know that I’ve struggled with anger towards this doctor and towards the system that has protected her career. Dr. Smith’s career is thriving, and my mother is dead.

I know that her career is thriving because I got on the internet a few weeks ago and looked her up. I never met her face to face. Our family had fired her before I got to town to be with my mother, but I had spoken with her on the telephone. I know what she looks like now, and I know what she sounds like, too, because she has a video talking about her practice. That voice echoes in my mind. I can remember sitting in my house in Knoxville, at the dining room table with my friend Pam, a nurse, sitting next to me coaching me as I asked questions about my mom’s prognosis.

When I saw her and heard her, I felt sad. So sad. I thought about sending her 17 years of photos of my daughter so that she’ll know what my mom missed. This daughter of mine has so many of the quirky, lovely qualities that my mother had. They would have adored each other. I’m sure of it.

Despite the sadness, I have forgiven Dr. Smith. Anger doesn’t eat at me. I haven’t even thought of her in many years. I have moved on and I have let Dr. Smith go. I have accepted that she did a great harm to my family. Most of the time I’m at peace about this. Getting here has involved a lot of hard work. Forgiveness is the hardest work I’ve done.

But it doesn’t wipe the slate clean. Dr. Smith is still a woman who killed another human being. Whether she has learned from this, gotten herself into a healthier frame of mind, forgiven herself, dedicated herself to becoming a better surgeon–all of these things–are up to her. She has to wake up every morning and look in the mirror knowing that her negligence and recklessness has harmed others. Or, maybe she doesn’t.

Forgiveness means that I have to let go and leave her to work out her own situation with fear and trembling. Or to live in uneasy denial. I’ve done my part. The rest is up to her.

I’ve been thinking about forgiveness lately because I’ve struggled to forgive a person or two in my life. Forgiveness is harder, at least for me it is, when it asks me to accept the weaknesses and failures of people close to me. Forgiving someone for abandoning me during cancer means moving on, letting go, and embracing radical acceptance.

But radical acceptance, another way of taking about forgiveness, doesn’t mean that I have to continue to work on my relationship with that person. It doesn’t mean I have to trust that person again or be vulnerable to that person again. It isn’t up to me to help that person work through this breach in our relationship. I don’t have to be the one to explain that “I’m sorry” really isn’t good enough. You have to own your failures.

Forgiveness and radical acceptance are my work. The rest is up to you.

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