The Art of Forgiveness: How My Mother Confronted Her Almost-Killer

I don't believe in coincidences.

Which is not to say that I have any strong religious belief in a particular being that is controlling the pathways of our lives. But I am certain that there is a force, something that draws people together at certain times, for whatever reason. And sometimes it's exactly what we needed. And sometimes it's a test. And other times, it's just a moment that offers closure to a profound storyline, like a reminder of a kicked addiction or a run-in with an ex lover.

For six years, all my mother wanted was to meet one man: James Godbey*.

There was no way to plan this, of course. Mr. Godbey had worked very carefully to conceal most details of his life. But from the moment that their lives first converged on Redding Road, my mother did everything in her power to find him. Because it was the only way she could possibly begin the burdensome process of forgiveness.

There's a curve on Redding Road, one of the main streets in my town, and after rounding the bend, you reach a flat stretch that intersects with my aunt's street, Chapman Place. It's just past one of my favorite farms from childhood that has hayrides and a patch for pumpkin picking in the fall. And on November 5, 2000, my mother stopped there in the pouring rain to buy flowers for her best friend Betsy's birthday. After setting the bouquet on the passenger seat, she continued on Redding Road, following the bend toward Betsy's house to deliver them.

Mere seconds after she turned the corner, an oncoming car slid into her lane and hit her with such impact that metal from the hood instantly encapsulated her legs -- a second skin.

As my aunt pulled up to her street a while later, she saw a Volvo mangled by the side of the road, flashing lights from police cars blurred by the heavy fog. EMTs attempted to pry a woman from the driver's side. She got out of her car to get a closer look beyond her rain-speckled windshield, and discovered that it was, indeed my mother's vehicle. Red, orange and yellow Mums were strewn about the street like shrapnel from an explosion.


After she was rushed to the ICU, surgeons and physical therapists spent the next half of the year trying to fix her. First, they would need to reattach her leg to her body, and it would be a miracle if they could get the blood flowing efficiently again. She suffered a traumatic brain injury, which would permanently impact her memory. Meanwhile, I had moved in with my aunt and uncle -- where I would stay for another seven months until my mother was able to move home.

According to the police report, James Godbey had fallen asleep at the wheel before hitting her head-on. After being admitted to the same hospital with complaints of chest pains, he was discharged the next morning with no sustained injuries.

Even in her heavy painkiller haze, my mother begged to see him. But they were on separate floors, due mainly to a dramatic difference in the severity of their injuries. Months later, when she finally located his house in the phone book, she began writing him letters. Over time, they eventually became less emotive and more informative. Sometimes she included X-ray scans, photographs of her mangled legs or the machines that were attached to her knees to vacuum out infection, reports on how I was doing in school after moving back home again.

He never wrote back.

On an unusually warm day in November of 2006, we were driving through Danbury when we spotted an ice cream stand by the side of the road. After pulling over, my mother stopped for a moment to survey the car parked beside us, but said nothing. Then, while waiting in line, she began to act strangely. I watched as she stalked back to the Mercedes next to us and peered in the window. Her eyes began darting around at the other patrons in line.

"He's here," she said, breathless.

I didn't have to ask who she meant.

"How do you know?"

"A stack of mail. In the back seat."

A man in a burgundy polo with silver hair and a distinguished profile was waiting patiently for his ice cream. His eyes fell to her leg as she approached with a limp.

"Do you know who I am?" she asked.

He shook his head no, his eyes fixated on her scar tissue, which spidered like a tree from her ankle up past her knee.

"My name is Katherine Strong. You blacked out in your car six years ago. And this is what you did."

Ice cream dripped down the cone and bled onto my fingers.

The truth is, I couldn't hear the rest from where I was sitting. But still, I knew what she was saying. I could feel the words as if they were spilling out of my own mouth: That she couldn't walk down the street without someone staring, that thousands of dollars in medical bills continue to accumulate with every bone infection, that she could no longer dance, and that a mind-altering pain wakes her up in the middle of every night.

It's amazing what can happen when we are finally faced with something we've long been anticipating. Sometimes we realize why we yearned for it in the first place, and sometimes it becomes clear it's not actually what we wanted at all. Regardless, one thing is almost always true: It's not what we expect it to be.

Eventually, my mother's sobs steadily began to quiet, as she hunched over the steering wheel long after Mr. Godbey drove away.

On the drive home, my mother told me that she had frequently dreamt of a chance meeting with him, running over and over in her head what she would say. But in the moment, it was inevitably different somehow -- as if she had imagined every possible scenario and yet was still unprepared for the one that played out. Mr. Godbey pledged to send her money every month for what he did. And she knew it was an empty promise, but she didn't care. Because she was certain that he wouldn't forget about her, those scars, the daughter waiting in the distance with silent awe.

The one thing that my mother never got in her settlement, something she had been waiting for all this time, wasn't exactly tangible or explicable. And it wasn't revenge, or even sympathy, or even money. All of those were a quick fix, but they weren't empowering, and they definitely wouldn't take the pain away.

Almost exactly six years to the day after they first crossed paths in a lane on Redding Road, James Godbey's and my mother's lives intersected again.

But this time, the force of the collision was coming from a different direction.

*Name has been changed