The Forgiveness Machine

The artist Karen Green has written a book called Bough Down about her grief over losing her husband, writer David Foster Wallace. In a review of the book I recently read, there was talk of an art piece that she built and exhibited in 2009 called The Forgiveness Machine, which is pictured here. Basically you write down something you want to forgive or something you want to be forgiven of and you place it at one end and a vacuum sucks it into the machine and it comes out shredded at the other end. What I read piqued my interest so I googled “Forgiveness Machine” and found a few interviews with Green where she talked about how she came to build the piece and the response people had to it. Of course, the first thing I thought was what would I write on that piece of paper. What would I want to forgive? What would I want to be forgiven of?

In November 2010, I was on Maui with my friends Michael and Kim, on my last night on the island, we treated ourselves to a luau at one of the fancier resorts. Now there are two things you should know about me:
1. I love a Mai-tai and 2. I love an open bar. We had a glorious evening under the stars, watching the show, eating poi and pulled pork, and drinking free Mai-tai’s. I had a few, more than a few. I don’t remember all the details, but at the end of the night, as we were walking to our car through the hotel lobby, I said, “This hotel is so pretty, let’s sit here and talk about what a beautiful night it’s been.” 30 seconds later, I was weeping convulsively. Kind of like an Oprah’s ugly cry, but darker. Uglier.

A few days earlier, hours after landing in Maui, my neighbor who had offered to care for my dogs called to tell me one of them, Mandy was not well and did I want them to euthanize her while I was gone. Mandy had been suffering from cancer, a fatal tumor in her sinuses and I knew her time was coming to an end. I had vacillated between going on the trip and canceling. My neighbor knew Mandy was sick and because she’d had her own elderly and frail dogs through the years, I knew she’d keep a watchful eye on her. I was not prepared for her phone call and I did not know what to do. I thought about coming home immediately. She ended up taking Mandy to her vet, he said that the end was near, but he gave her fluids (she’d become dehydrated) and a cortisone shot, which perked her up a little. Even though I had taken Mandy to my vet just a couple weeks before and she’d assured me that Mandy was in pain, but not so much pain that it was time to put her down. I still felt like I let her down, in fact, just reading these words, I still feel like I let her down.

All of these emotions flooded my rum-soaked heart that night when we were sitting on that couch in the hotel lobby. I started crying and I could not stop for 20 minutes. I was sad that Mandy was dying and sadder because I had failed her as her caretaker, as her father. Michael, who does not drink and Kim, who’d drank less than me, both offered support and hugs. If they were embarrassed by my display of emotion they gave no indication. I’m sure it’s not the first time someone’s cried their eyes out at the Kaanapali Beach Hyatt Regency. Eventually, the three of us pulled me together and we headed to our condo, stopping at another ABC store to pick up chocolate covered macadamia nuts for my plane ride home the next day. A couple days later, after spending about 48 hours with Mandy, I did decide to put her to sleep. It was a sad day, to say the least.

If I could go back in time and do things differently, I would. But I can’t go back. Something people told me during this period is that we make the best decisions we can at the time and just hope for the best. I understand why The Forgiveness Machine resonated with so many people. With it’s bright colored gizmos it presents forgiveness as something convivial and instantaneous. It’s neither, but we wish it was. Forgiveness is not a machine, but rather a process.