Learning how to forgive myself for a childhood accident

By Michael Gentry

I was 10. I loved my cat. And I killed him.

Just a year earlier, my family packed up our Eastern Washington home and moved to a logging camp on Alaska’s panhandle. We left our house, our family and friends, and many modern-day comforts. The camp had a small school house which accommodated all grade levels—K through 12. I was the lone 5th grader, so friends were friends by default, not choice. About these friends, my dad used to say, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” I missed home. I missed my friends. Not only did I feel alone, but often, I was alone.

A family five trailers down from ours, the Millers, had a litter of kittens. Somehow, probably because my mother perceived a need, we ended up with one. He was a black, peke-faced puff ball. Though he was technically a family pet, he took immediately to me and me to him. He’d chase my shoelaces as I walked, cuddle on my lap, and coil up on the foot of my bed each night. Because of his resemblance to a gremlin, I named him Gizmo.

The schoolhouse was small enough to not have a cafeteria. So, my sisters and I walked back to our trailer each day for lunch. One day, we were seated around the small, oak table situated awkwardly in our small dining room. We ate and talked as my mom worked busily between the stove and sink behind us. I reclined back in the oak chair, holding the table tightly with white fingers. The wood legs slipped on the worn linoleum floor, slamming the chair to the ground. I climbed off the floor as my mother gasped, one hand covering her mouth, her eyes sick.

I gazed down to see Gizmo trapped beneath the wood slats of the chair back, like wooden prison bars.  I yanked the chair off him, but he didn’t rise. He choked for air, pawing furiously at his head, trying to brush away the pain. Blood trickled from his nose as he shook tiny tremors.

Mom hurried us kids into the living room, then covered Gizmo with a dish cloth. I watched my mom back at the kitchen sink, bury her face deep into her hands. My sisters sat quietly, eyes wide. I watched the dish cloth painfully rise and fall, until it rose no more.

I cried for many days after that, mostly alone. For many years after, I lied. Whenever this dreadful event was brought up, I told my siblings that my shoelace was caught on the chair leg, and I was merely getting it free when the chair slipped. Though, each time I said this, I knew the real reason was that I was just being careless. I thought lying would ease the sting, but it didn’t.

That day I not only lost a good friend, I killed him.

I knew I needed to forgive myself. But, each time I tried, each time I raked myself over the coals real good, it didn’t help. Gizmo’s death stayed fresh through middle school and into junior high. I wasn’t drowning in my guilt, but I wasn’t able to move on from it either. I was still careless, and Gizmo was still dead.

Several years later, some time in high school, I stumbled upon some old photos of our time in Alaska. As I pulled a photo of Gizmo from the stack, I was momentarily sucked me back into the horror. My lungs began to fill up with the pain I had suffered. But then I exhaled, and it was gone. The guilt and pain were lifted; somehow I was freed.

I didn’t know if I deserved to feel this way, this absolution, or why I did. But, in that moment, I remembered Gizmo for the friend he was.

Time is an interesting thing. It is powerful. And the distance from that awful day provided new perspective. The years that separated me from the trauma allowed me to see it for what it truly was—an accident. In order to forgive myself, I needed to learn, and time made that possible. I needed to learn that careless acts can affect others, that lying doesn’t dull the pain. I needed to learn to move on.

Michael Gentry lives in rural Idaho with his family, which includes two spoiled Persian cats. He teaches writing classes at the local college and wrangles (raises) children after work.

Image: Catching Some Rays, Margie Lakeberg

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