Releasing the guilt

A short time ago the basketball-sized lump of guilt I’ve carried for years broke free. I watched it roll away, feeling as if the space it
had occupied was suddenly replaced with helium buoying me up to the stratosphere.

Higher and higher.

Free after decades of guilt.

Good bye to guilt left behind from my years at Gonzaga University and watching the ‘Zags demonstrate their basketball prowess. I was with my then boyfriend, watching the team dribbling, passing the ball, excited cheers as swish it flew through the net. But the fast-paced play faltered when the referee stumbled and slumped down.

Players paused. All eyes turned onto the figure lying on the floorboards. “Is there a doctor in the house,” someone shouted.

I wasn’t a doctor. However, I’d worked as a nursing assistant in a nursing home. Trained to respond to emergencies, I fumbled past others seated in the row, hurrying to the sidelines where the referee now sat, a hand pressed against his chest.

Was he having a heart attack? “Can I help?” I asked, looking at his white face. “Has someone called for an ambulance?”

“I’ll be all right,” he said and got to his feet.

“Really. Please! You need to get this checked out! Just to be sure you’re not – “

“Aww, he’ll be fine,” interrupted a man who sat next to the referee.

I protested again but the whistle blew and play resumed as he jogged back onto the court. I went back to my seat, upset. He should be going to the hospital. A few minutes later, I watched as he fell again. This time the ambulance was summoned and emergency medical crews lugged him off by stretcher. That might have been the end of the incident – but I heard the next day he died of a heart attack while on the way to the hospital.

The news scorched me. He’d died. God, why hadn’t I tried harder to make him listen to me? I couldn’t come to grips with the fact that he was dead and that realization marked the beginning of carrying the basketball sized lump of guilt. If only he had listened to me. If only.

Never again, I resolved. Never again would anyone die on my shift. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a nursing assistant any more. What mattered was making my voice heard when emergencies happened.
That lump spurred me to take action when friends on separate occasions overdosed on medications. Each time I insisted the ambulance be called and stayed close as charcoal was applied by hospital staff. 

Later I could understand somewhat why the referee and his friend hadn’t taken me seriously. When I was 24 I was mistaken for being an eighth grade student at a private school. I looked like a kid, evidently too young to be taken seriously.

What I didn’t realize until today was how deep my guilt was. Sure, I understood I looked young, too young to know what I was talking about – however, I still blamed myself for his death.

As of today, I stop shouldering that burden. I am NOT responsible for him going back out onto the court. Sadly, for his family, he rejected my help. His friend, evidently wrapped in the excitement of the game, thought it wasn’t serious enough to warrant taking the referee out of the game.

His decision.

Not mine.

How difficult it is to give advice and have it unheeded. It is infinitely worse when that refusal to listen results in death. But carrying the guilt for so long is energy-sapping. Draining.  Useless. 

And I forgive myself.


© 2016 by Mary Louise Van Dyke. All Rights Reserved.

Mary Louise Van Dyke is finding the peanut peanut buttr  butter years of her life both sweet and challenging as she divides her time between working and spending time with her family and elderly parent.

What we share in common

Past experience has taught me to swaddle my religious beliefs into a tight, self-contained bundle.

book bundle

After all, religion is supposed to be one of those – shhhh, keep your opinions to yourself – in order to not alienate friends and family.

However, after reading a book titled “Post Traumatic Church Syndrome,” or PTCS, those bonds of self-preservation are slipping. Author Reba Riley highlights her struggles to come to peace after breaking away from her upbringing as a Pentecostal Christian. She seeks answers while making a spiritual quest that takes her to 30 assorted places of worship. Her goal is to finish the quest by age 30.

I began reading, even while questioning why I was doing this. Was there something in PTCS, I needed to learn? Or to use in resolving questions from my faith journey? About half way through the book, I am still pondering those questions even while finding it nearly impossible to stop reading.

My spiritual resume features being raised Baptist, converting to Roman Catholicism at age 17, and visiting a lot of churches as an adult.

Baptist and Catholic, although both Christian denominations, seem goalposts apart. That point was forcefully driven home soon after my conversion when family members discussed my decision. The overwhelming consensus was two thumbs down, in conversations that resembled mixing Diet Cola with Mentos.

My response was to find a place to hide and try and calm down. Were they correct? Was I wrong to feel – finally –- at home in the Catholic church?

Like Riley, I was at a point where I desperately needed answers. A wise woman was there for me. Her joy in being Catholic encouraged me to reflect on why I’d made the decision to convert.

I won’t say the journey grew easier after that. I stop attending church for a time during my first marriage to an agnostic. Eventually I began attending mass again. Regaining my spiritual equilibrium involved learning to appreciate the best of what I had learned as a child – and where I respectfully disagreed with my family, and yes, also with the Roman Catholic church.

Curiously writing as a religion reporter would broaden my outlook as well both in my professional and personal life. In reporter mode, I attended interfaith holiday services at Protestant churches, learned about the Orthodox Greek church, and was a guest of honor at Passover gatherings. Asked by a Jewish person why I was there, I respectfully replied I consider Judaism the parent of Christianity.

Although there to record, I mentally connected to what was happening at these varied events. The answer, I thought, was focusing on what we hold in common. Do good to your neighbor. Do not harm the person who asks you for help. Show caring and compassion to others.

I appreciated the times when people of differing faiths came together, such as the evening a group of Catholic and Muslim women held a dialog at a mosque. The facilitator said in this time of darkness she wanted Christian and Muslim women to share their faith.

The intent was not conversion, but understanding.

I covered an event at a Catholic college where the campus community were saying good-bye to a young Buddhist monk who’d attended classes there. He was returning to his home in Cambodia to operate a children’s home. Watching him, in his orange robe, hug the former college president, good-bye brought tears to my eyes. “You go with my love and prayers,” the president told him.

Truly, links between religions are possible. My journey includes forging connections between the church of my youth with the spiritual home of my personal heart. Yes I believe in the trinity of God, Jesus, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Serving as a lector, or reading the Bible, at services is another tie. Siblings and my mother have attended mass with me a few times and I sometimes attend their church services.

Now that I am in my middle years, I appreciate better my family’s distress. Parents want to share their beliefs, values with their kids. Be that in church – or not attending church. Atheists, agnostics have every bit as much concern about their humanistic values. Seeing sons and daughters questioning and breaking free of family expectations, isn’t easy.

But my faith is my own. I don’t expect others to fully share or appreciate it. I wrestle with it, fight to remove any blinders, and seek answers. Others must forge their own paths as I do mine.

© 2015 by Mary Louise Van Dyke. All Rights Reserved.