Viktor Frankl conceived of three elements every person must face in life, and in fact must resolve in order to find life meaning. Frankl’s tragic triad[i] is comprised of pain, guilt, and suffering. I believe how we face these generational and humanity-wide inner crucibles with determination, individually and in community with others, builds our capacity to heal and be healed, and affirms our capacity to love and be loved. In coming to a better understanding of our own existence, we must pass through the history of our mothers and fathers, and our choices in this regard are of paramount importance.
A friend of mine, in one vital moment, revealed the beauty of such choices.
If you knew Sheldon McLain at his strongest and most authentic, you not only knew a man of intense interior discipline, but a physical specimen worthy of the great images of the masculine passed down through the ages. Half Cree, he stood 6 foot 4 inches tall and looked intimidating, his face and eyes darkly striking, his muscular frame lithe, quick, and powerful. Sadly he died much too young, in his thirties, in a car accident on the winter roads of the Hi-Line in northern Montana. He had been a close friend, a complex person of a very mercurial bent, at times confusing, at times lovely… inherently hard to understand and stubborn enough to be difficult about it. Capable of grave harms, he lived a double life wrought by generational cycles of abuse and pain. Yet in Sheldon’s most noble moments he evoked deep compassion, and the best of the human heart.
With respect for his death I tell this story of his life.
Shel and I first met as boys on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeast Montana.
My father was the head basketball coach and high school principal at St. Labre, the students a combination of Northern Cheyenne from Lame Deer, Busby, and Ashland, and those from the Crow nation bused in from a distance, from towns such as Crow Agency, Pryor, and Lodge Grass.
I found out from Sheldon his father had died due to drug-related events just before I arrived on the Cheyenne reservation. As young boys, Sheldon and his older brother George were left in the care of the State. Sheldon’s mother, living in Canada, did not come to retrieve them. She was a full blown alcoholic. Eventually the two boys were adopted by a family in the small mill town that bordered the reservation. Ironically, Sheldon attended a white grade school while I (called Casper on the rez (after the friendly ghost)) attended a Cheyenne grade school.
We saw each other often, we loved basketball, and we played the game all out. Our heroes were the players who starred for my father’s team: young men with names that matched the joy and originality they showed on the court—Juneau Plenty Hawk, Fred and Paul Deputy, Stanford Rides Horse. We grew up admiring them and trying to emulate them… and then my family moved, and Sheldon and I lost touch.
Years later, both of us having left the reservation, having lived in totally different geographic regions, we met again and discovered common ground and formed a lasting friendship. We both pursued collegiate basketball and ended up spending a decade of summers coaching younger players on the summer basketball camp circuit. We also both pursued graduate degrees in psychology and spent countless hours talking about the inner life… about the nature of family and the nature of God. Sheldon’s life reflected a vibrant truth I had found in my readings on personal and collective healing: “the need for forgiveness arises when someone has acted in such a way as to bring about a fundamental disruption to the wholeness or integrity of one’s life. Initially, on a deep, almost organic level, there is a tearing of the fabric of one’s life, one’s world.” [ii] The mother loss and father loss Sheldon had experienced, both of great depth, formed a complex network of internal pain and the desire to overcome. Near the end of my own doctoral degree in psychology, when I began my central research on touch and forgiveness, I asked Sheldon to participate in the research.
His story, printed below in his own words, is one I carry with me. [iii]
I had been dealing with those emotions of resentment and abandonment the years between writing to my mom as a 7th grader and then the possibility of seeing her for the first time again at 18. There was a lot of years there, a lot of gradual healing took place, and as I got older, I think I was able to work through some of those feelings slowly and by the time I was 18, yes I was very nervous, but I had pretty much come to terms with a lot of the abandonment. I had been given a home. Through the State I had been blessed with two parents who cared for me, provided for me, gave me opportunities to succeed in life, and I had been around other people that also furthered that and really focused their love to meet my needs and to help me in my areas of weakness. Areas such as the insecurity that comes from abandonment. I’d started to believe in myself and not be ashamed but accept and actually be proud of my past. As a Native American Indian I had a heritage to be proud of.
But I was afraid.
She called me and said she was coming to my brother’s wedding. So she came down four weeks later. And during those four weeks—in between the time she called and the wedding—I prayed every night. My prayer was along the lines of, “God, I really need your help in this, I need your love because I don’t have any love for her in my own heart. I want to be able to say I love you Mom, to her. And I want that to be genuine and I want it to be strong—not something that is just said. So I just ask you to give me your love so that I may be able to show her your love and that you would just work in me and do whatever it takes.”
I prayed this prayer every night before falling asleep, for a month. At the end of the time she came down to the wedding, and I was taken aback by her appearance. I remembered her as a little child would, when I was three years old, that was the last time I’d seen her. I remembered her as being young and pretty, and she had long black hair and she was tall and she had a beautiful face, and being Native Canadian Indian she had dark skin and dark eyes, and she was a pretty lady. But the first time I saw her at the wedding it was amazing. I was taken aback by the changes. Her face showed a lot of pain, a lot of years. Her face was just haggard—it was hard and there was no light in her eyes. Nothing that showed joy. There was nothing that showed happiness. And that was a day that she should have been rejoicing; her son was getting married. She was hardened. Like she just didn’t show emotion, it was just harsh. She’d had a hard life as evidenced by her face; she’s got a lot of scars you know. And a lot of those scars are because of what she did, because of the pain of living without your son. She’s a fairly tall lady, about 5’11” and she still had long black hair. You could tell that she’d been pretty once, but there was nothing now that would really be attractive. She kind of stooped when she walked and there was no confidence in her. That weekend we probably spent about six to seven total hours together, during which I smelled alcohol on her breath constantly. I remember the night after the wedding we went back to the hotel room. She had to pick up some clothes, and when I walked into the hotel room it smelled like a liquor store. It was the stench of alcohol, of hard liquor, the same that was on her breath. I remember walking out of her hotel room and just saying to myself, it’s no big deal you know, no big deal.
The next day she was leaving and it was about 10:30 in the morning. I remember standing in my foster-parents’ living room. Everyone had gathered there to say their goodbyes, and she was nervous, you could tell. She was kind of hesitant, shifting back and forth and I was also pretty nervous. I was praying the whole time to myself, just, God, I’m going to be strong, I’m going to be strong. I was pretty emotional, I was ready to cry. My mom stood across the room and… here’s her 18 year old son. She’s never been a part of his life, she’s had no contact whatsoever, and she’s never heard the words I love you come out of his lips. And I’m sure she’s scared of rejection. I’m sure she’s scared of a lot of things. We’ve never talked openly about her alcohol or anything like that, it was just kind of a skirted issue. Then she said, “Well, we’ve got to be going now, we’ve got a long road ahead of us. We have to drive back to Canada and it’s about a 9 hour drive.” She was making small talk and she was kind of at a standstill, she didn’t know what to say. I walked across the room, took about three steps and put my arms out and she took a step towards me. I embraced her and said, “I love you, Mom.”
It was the only time I had embraced her and it was a real strong moment. My left arm was underneath her right arm and my right arm would be on top of her shoulder. Her hair was kind of in my face, it was real close. So our bodies were close to one another and I remember having my hand on her back and just drawing her to me, and holding her strongly for awhile. I made sure it felt strong, not weak. It was like the ending part of the story of forgiveness—for my forgiveness of her you know.
It was just healing for me to reach out and say, I love you, Mom.
It was like saying I forgive you, I love you… it’s okay.
The embrace had a lot to do with forgiveness of all those years of abandonment and pain, and hatred towards her. The touch was an acknowledgement of the relationship that existed between us as a son and a mother. That bond had been re-established and recognized and acknowledged in the eyes of others. If I was giving her something I was giving her her son back… in the sense that I was giving my heart to her as a son and looking at her as my mother. I was acknowledging that she was my mother, yet realizing at the same time she most likely wouldn’t act on that and she wouldn’t involve herself any differently after we touched. I gave her the freedom and the opportunity to be there. And for that moment in time she was my mother.
[ii] Rowe, J.O., Halling, S., Davies, E., Leifer, M., Powers, D., and van Bronkhorst, J. (1989, p. 239). The psychology of forgiving another: A dialogal research approach. In R.S. Valle and S. Halling (Eds.) Existential-phenomenological perspectives in psychology: Exploring the breadth of human experience, (233-244). New York, NY: Plenum Press.
[iii] Sheldon McLain was a participant in my doctoral research at the University of Alberta.