2016-06-30
A month after my mother died of AIDS-four years after my father died of AIDS-I arrived at the Gatesville prison in Texas, hoping that a brutal murderer would be able to help me sort it all out. It was 1994, and I was there to meet Karla Faye Tucker.

She had murdered two people with a pick ax, but for some reason my mother and she had become good friends. My mom was involved with a Prison Fellowship group that regularly spent time "ministering to" the female inmates in Texas. This was years before Karla's positive attributes became the focus of a national campaign to convince then-governor George W. Bush to stay her execution. I was suspicious, to say the least, as my mother waxed poetic about this murderer named Karla, who, she said, "was a wonderful, spirit-filled person who had dramatically changed her life."

I had to find out what my mother had discovered in that prison. As that last maximum-security door slammed behind me, I saw Karla running toward me, her arms open wide. It was my first exposure to prisoners, much less death row prisoners, and I was frightened. I was sure she could hear my heart pounding. As she held me, I was certain she could sense the chill in my bones and feel my knees shaking.

"After all your mom's told me, I feel like I know you," Karla told me. Sitting beside Karla, as she held my hand, I saw peace beaming from the face of this woman who had so much to be forgiven for. I couldn't stop staring. She had been stripped bare of pretenses and had nowhere to hide. Her peace. Where does her peace come from?

***

I resented Karla Faye Tucker Brown for unusually personal reasons having nothing to do with her crime. It bothered me that my mom seemed to blithely forgive Karla's horrible crime--while harboring extreme hatred and a lack of forgiveness for my father.

Her rage towards him was understandable.

My father, after living a secret, double life for over 20 years, had given my mother AIDS.

He had already died and she was struggling to come to grips with his betrayal. She would sputter his name with venomous hatred, but since he was dead and could no longer shoulder her wrath, it all fell on me.

Each of my parents felt grossly maligned by the other. My dad blamed my mother for his prolific philandering, accusing her of being cold and unresponsive, forcing him, he said, to find solace, companionship and sexual gratification in the sordid, free-for all bathhouses and brothels that flourished in the 1970's and 80's.

Yet while he was responsible for the imminent death of my mother, I could easily forgive him because I, too, blamed her for my father's disease.

It took me far too long to forgive her for a host of past wrongs suffered during my childhood under her self-righteous, pious and brutal hand. All those unpredictable beatings I received during her fits of rage left me deeply scarred and resentful.

"Please forgive Diana, Lord," she would solemnly pray aloud after one of my beatings for rolling my eyes at her, clicking my tongue to my teeth or trying to voice my opinion. "She doesn't know how to respect and obey me. Pleeeease forgive her."

Her summoning God to every one of my beatings made me conclude that her legalistic, disapproving God with his strict rules and unjust punishment, could never love me--a rebellious, hardhearted, sinful daughter. My mom had always told me so.

I held both my parents responsible for the death not only of my family but our family's basic philosophy: That we were better than everyone else. We had always been so good at being condescending. My parents were well-known in Milwaukee for their conservative views, and we were more righteous, more high-class, more respectable, more right than wrong.

That posture became rather difficult to maintain once the truth about my father's real life and death and my mother's diagnosis became known in their social circle. We moved him to Cincinnati, under a different name, having him fill the last space in one of the nation's first AIDS hospices. We moved my mother to another part of Milwaukee, where she was living when she was invited to prison to meet Karla.

In fact, Karla understood my mom immediately because, in a way, they were both sitting on death row. Karla was condemned to die by the state of Texas. My mom was condemned by a set of self-righteous, constricting social mores that kicked her out of her circle and left her standing helplessly alone, watching as her church and social community fled from the horror of her tragedy.

The people that she and her bejeweled, church-going friends had always condemned for their sinful ways-criminals, druggies and other lowlifes-were now the only ones offering help, sympathy and, like Karla, a hand to hold. These "undesirables" loved her and stood by her as Christ would. Her former friends and neighbors were too busy whispering about her.

Karla's influence on my mother began showing itself gradually with Mom's spontaneous apologies for past incidents, longer hugs, more kind words and more tears without anger. Her bitterness began to dissipate. She started talking more about God's grace, than God's judgment. And.she began to ask God to help her forgive my father. We didn't have enough time before she died to cross over the entire chasm of our pain, but the bridge was halfway there. I was to build the rest without her but with God's help-and Karla's.

"God always brings you to a place where you'll finally listen," Karla said to me. "And for me it was really, really low. It was pretty low for your mom, too." Karla knew she was going to die--even knew the date of her probable death--but was able to wipe my tears aside as I was leaving and say, "Don't be sad. I know where I'm going and so did your mom."

As I left her, the Bible stories of my youth took on new meaning and finally made sense, in light of a forgiving God.

In the book of John, I recalled the woman who was caught in the act of adultery who, according to Jewish law, should have been stoned to death. After Jesus told the gathering crowd that "He who is without sin should throw the first stone," the mob slowly started to drop their stones and walk away. Jesus didn't condemn this woman, wave his finger in her face and say, "I hope you learned your lesson." He merely asked her "to go and sin no more."

I, who in my past had always identified myself with Jesus--thinking myself forgiving and accepting of everyone--knew now I had always been part of that stoning crowd. I had always been quick to condemn someone I felt deserved it or hadn't followed the "rules," while overlooking my own sinful self and haughty heart. That woman walked away from Jesus knowing she had been on the receiving end of God's grace. Just like Karla. Just like my mother.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son in the book of Luke, the younger son had run off and foolishly spent all his inheritance, returning home only when he found himself impoverished, fighting with the pigs for food. Rather than be angry at his youngest son's ignoble behavior, the father ran to the boy and even threw a party because he was so thrilled to have him home again. The son, broken and repentant, begged for his father's forgiveness.

The older son, who had faithfully stayed home, was angry and wouldn't go to the party.

I was that older son--good at following the rules and excellent at feeling I wasn't as sinful as the next guy. And in my heart I, too, was angry. I resented my father for his dishonesty, his death and the shame left behind its wake; my mother, for her cruelty and her death; each of them, for killing the other; and both of them, for killing my family.

I knew nothing about forgiveness. I understood nothing about God's grace.

Most people think all they need to do to get to heaven is to "be good." But these parables and all of Jesus' teachings refute that attitude--we can never be "good enough." All we must do, the Bible says, is cry, "Help! I can't do it on my own. I need YOU!" The beauty of God's grace, Phillip Yancey writes, is that it doesn't depend on what we have done for God but what God has done for us.

I am not making a statement about the pros and cons of capital punishment. More importantly, I am in no way minimizing the horrible, brutal crime Karla committed or the pain and suffering of the victims and their families. Karla never did, either. I am saying, however, when she died, she was not the same woman who brutally murdered those two people. When my mom died, she wasn't the same person either and because of God's grace, I too, am no longer the same.

Every weekend I visited my dad before he died, he would ask me to take him to church. During most of the service, he would sit in the back row, crying so hard, his shoulders would shake with the wracking sobs. When I pressed him to tell me why being in church always brought him to tears, he said, "I just can't get over the fact that God could forgive someone like me."

I thank God he forgives me and extends his hand of Grace, able to change us so dramatically. Otherwise, there'd be no hope for anyone.

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