Beautiful Soul

Day 155

“Sometimes you just have to make peace with your past in order to keep your future from becoming a constant battle.”

– Unknown

I came across this incredible story of healing, forgiveness and transformation. There are no words that I can add, so I will leave you with it:

On the day Patty O’Reilly met the man who had killed her husband, Danny, his wedding band hung next to a small crucifix on a gold chain around her neck. Patty clutched a family photo album as guards ushered her into a cramped, windowless conference room at California State Prison, Sacramento. She sat at a wooden table and leafed through the pages of photographs, her chest tight as she recalled the moment each picture was taken: Danny dancing. Danny getting married. Danny playing with their daughters.

When Michael Albertson shuffled in, accompanied by a correctional officer, Patty was struck by how frail he looked. His blue uniform hung from his skinny frame, and his face, accented by a graying mustache, was drawn. He seemed as anxious as she was—and far less powerful than he’d appeared from across a courtroom two years earlier. Hunched and fidgeting, Michael took the seat across from her. The mediator who’d arranged the meeting led a silent meditation. Then Patty and Michael exchanged stories about the day that united them. It was the worst one of their lives.

On April 19, 2004, Danny had risen at 6 a.m. to make a pot of coffee. As usual, he and Patty had taken their mugs to the sofa and read each other a passage from a spiritual writer—a private communion ritual for these devout Catholics. Then Patty fixed breakfast for their girls, Erin, 12, and Siobhan, seven, while Danny cut roses from the garden to send off to school with Erin.

Danny was a former ballet dancer who worked as a marketing analyst for a winery in Sonoma County. He and Patty had met in ballet class in their 20s, and they still shared a passion for jetés and pliés. At 43, Danny was as lean and muscular as ever. Patty, 39, now ran a ballet school of her own.

Patty’s car was in the shop, so Danny biked to work that morning and let Patty use his car. She ran errands while the girls were in school, then picked them up and took them to her studio, where they did homework while she rehearsed her students for an upcoming show.

Home around 9:30 p.m., they came in through the back door, and the girls went straight to bed, but there was no sign of Danny. The dog whined to go out, and when Patty opened the front door, a card with the sheriff’s number fluttered to the floor.

She called the number and told the operator she’d be waiting in the garage. If the news was bad, she didn’t want the girls to hear her wailing.

Ten minutes later, the sheriff arrived. The news was very bad.

On the worst day of his life, Michael woke up with a pounding hangover from yet another drinking binge. After popping a couple of Percodans and smoking a joint, he called his girlfriend for a ride to the doctor’s office to refill his oxycodone prescription. Michael, who was 46, had become addicted to the powerful opioid analgesics he’d been taking since breaking his back a few years earlier. “I’m a mess,” he told her. “If I don’t get those pills, I’m gonna go off the deep end.”

But she passed on giving him a lift. “A DUI would serve you right,” she said.

Furious, Michael climbed into his pickup and drove to see his doctor, who took one look at him—gaunt, unshaven, almost incoherent—and referred him to a detox program at a nearby hospital. On the way to the clinic, he bought two quarts of beer and drank them in the hospital parking lot. After waiting an hour for his name to be called, Michael ran out of patience and took off across town to a neighborhood where he knew he could find heroin. He’d never used the stuff, but he felt desperate. The dealer he was looking for wasn’t around, so Michael found another liquor store, drank two canned cocktails, and passed out in his truck. When he awoke, he called his girlfriend, but she again refused to pick him up. He drove back toward the clinic.

En route, as he weaved through Santa Rosa, Michael rear-ended a car. Afraid of losing his license, he sped away. Swerving around a bend, he spotted a man on a bicycle. He had a flash of his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend, an avid cyclist, and a jolt of jealous rage electrified him. By the time he slammed on the brakes, it was too late. He’d hit Danny O’Reilly with a force that sent his body flying over the guardrail.

When a patrol car appeared, Michael staggered out of the truck and cursed at the officer, reaching for his waistband as if he had a gun. He hoped the cop would shoot him. Instead, he was pepper-sprayed, handcuffed, and taken to jail.

As the weeks following Danny’s death passed, Patty’s grief curdled into bitterness. One evening, when the girls were supposed to be showering, Patty heard giggling instead of running water. “I don’t need this!” she screamed. Patty immediately felt ashamed. Her hatred for Michael, she realized, was hurting those she loved.

Soon afterward, Patty received court papers outlining Michael’s background. She read that Michael had been raised Catholic. She also learned that as a small boy, he had been sexually abused by his father. When she read this, Patty welled up with empathy.

Four months later, Michael pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter, hit-and-run, and driving under the influence. At his sentencing hearing, he apologized tearfully. “I pray one day one of you will find a hint of forgiveness,” he said. Patty rose and spoke about the damage he’d done. “I’ve had to tell our daughters that their father would never be coming home again,” she said. “I have lost my best friend … my companion.”

She paused, then added, “I do have the capacity to forgive.”

That was as much as she could say. She asked the judge that Michael be held fully accountable for his crime, and a 14-year sentence was imposed.

As a little girl, Siobhan asked if she could visit Michael in prison. “I wanted him to see me,” says Siobhan now.

With Michael locked up at San Quentin State Prison, Patty believed it was over. But one day her youngest daughter, Siobhan—now a pensive second grader—asked her mother if she could visit Michael in prison. Patty said no. A week or two later, Siobhan asked again. Patty searched the girl’s dark brown eyes. She and Danny had raised their daughters to forgive anyone who sincerely apologized. Patty saw Siobhan’s request as a sign that Patty had more forgiving to do. “We can try,” she told Siobhan.

“Good,” the girl said. “I made him a card.”

Decorated with stars, a panda sticker, and a drawing of a crying face, it read: My name is Siobhan. I’m eight years old. You might be surprised, but I’m not mad at you! But I am very sorry.

Siobhan card

“I wanted to see him, and I wanted him to see me as well,” Siobhan says now. “I wanted to tell him in person, ‘I’m sad, but I’m OK, and I forgive you.’ It wasn’t a conscious thought process. It just seemed like the thing to do.”

Patty was touched by Siobhan’s generous spirit, but she wanted to meet Michael herself before deciding whether to bring her little girl. Researching her visitation options, she read about Rochelle Edwards, a mediator with the nonprofit Insight Prison Project who was starting a program based on the concept of “restorative justice,” which encourages structured dialogues between inmates and victims. Increasingly influential in correctional systems across America, this face-to-face communication has been shown to help repair harm caused by the crime.

Patty called Edwards. “The process isn’t easy,” Edwards told her. “But it can be a powerful experience for everyone involved.” Edwards explained that both parties would spend at least six months preparing for the meeting. For practice, she suggested, Patty could volunteer as a surrogate victim for groups of inmates at San Quentin.

Although Siobhan was too young to participate then (the minimum age is 18), Patty seized the opportunity. She hoped to find a deeper forgiveness—one that didn’t feel like surrender.

Patty and Michael met on September 28, 2006, at the prison outside Sacramento to which Michael had recently been transferred. Before they exchanged stories, Patty slid her daughter’s well-worn card across the table to him, along with a new one from Siobhan: I just want to make sure you know that I forgive you. I do still miss my dad; I think that’s a lifelong thing. I hope you’re feeling OK.

Michael winced. “The resiliency of a child is incredible,” he said quietly.

Patty told him about Danny: devoted husband and dad, skilled cook, and biking buff. She listed family milestones her husband had missed in the two years he’d been gone and those he would miss in the future: graduations, weddings, grandchildren. As she wept, she recounted Danny’s last day and the days that had followed. She shared the details of her daily struggle to raise her daughters and how she still nearly broke down whenever a cyclist rode past. She told Michael how she’d hated him. Then she revealed that she’d given up her anger.

“Forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re off the hook,” she said. “I want you to deal with what you’ve done—to confront the pain and let it change you.”

Michael then spoke of his father’s abuse, of how the old man had given him his first drink at age seven and how the whiskey had seemed to transport him to a better world. He told how he’d started businesses and lost them, found love and squandered it, how he’d tried rehab again and again and managed to stay sober for 14 years—until, in 1996, a piece of stage equipment he was installing fell and cracked his spine. He explained how he’d hoarded extra pain pills and plunged back into drinking.

“My rage at my father was at the root of it all,” he said. “Does this give me an excuse to do what I did? No.”

Thanks to restorative justice and her journey toward forgiveness, “I feel less like a victim,” says Patty.

Patty shared the photo album, showing scene after scene of Danny basking in his family’s love. “It was such a wonderful life,” Michael said. “I’m so sorry.”

In keeping with the guidelines of restorative justice, Patty asked Michael to make specific commitments: to stay active in Alcoholics Anonymous, to continue in psychotherapy, and to share his story with others as a cautionary tale. She requested that he send letters every three months, updating her on his progress. He promised he would do it all.

After four hours, Patty walked out of the prison. For the first time since she had seen the sheriff’s card fall from her door, she felt free.

In March 2015, Siobhan turned 18—finally old enough to meet Michael face-to-face. He had been transferred to a prison in San Luis Obispo and would be paroled in May. Five days before Michael’s scheduled release, Patty drove Siobhan to the prison. Patty cried in the car as her daughter, who still seemed so young and vulnerable, disappeared inside.

Siobhan joined Rochelle Edwards in a boardroom with barred windows. When Michael entered, Siobhan was relieved to see that he appeared fit and calm; he was no longer the haggard scarecrow her mother had described. He offered his hand, and she shook it.

Siobhan read Kahlil Gibran’s poem “The Coming of the Ship”: How shall I go in peace and without sorrow? Who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret? Michael repeated his story, up to the day that had changed them all. Then he described his life since.

Michael said that after meeting her mother, he’d resolved to get sober and pull himself together. He’d struggled with depression and medical troubles and had occasionally resorted to using marijuana or pills smuggled into prison. Eventually, Michael was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed mood stabilizers. He told Siobhan that he hadn’t touched alcohol since the accident or illicit drugs for five years. He’d gone through intensive psychotherapy and attended AA meetings daily, mentoring 20 other inmates in the program. “Your family’s forgiveness saved my life,” he said. “Now I’m trying to do the same for other people.”

Siobhan discussed her own depression and struggle to stay focused on schoolwork. She was thriving now, she said, ready to graduate and head to college. She asked him to make a list of at least five people he could count on for support when he left prison. He told her he would.

The meeting lasted an hour and a half, and Siobhan walked out smiling.

Patty visited Michael that afternoon. She read him the passage that she and Danny had shared on his last morning, from the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen: I saw a woman bowed to the ground under the assault of many whirlwinds. And I saw her regain her strength, pulling herself up, resisting the winds with great courage.

“Those words have always comforted me,” she said, handing him the book. “I hope they’ll do the same for you.”

Michael was released the following Friday. He’s living in a halfway house now, volunteering as a crisis counselor for survivors of rape and domestic violence and searching for paid work that will make use of his hard-won experience.

“I’ve been given an incredible gift,” he says. “I want to do something magnificent to honor it.”

Patty, who continues to work with inmates, cherishes the gifts she has unearthed during her long journey of forgiveness. “My best qualities—things like patience and gratitude—have been nurtured,” she says. “I feel less like a victim and more like a person who makes things happen.”

Perhaps most important, she feels that justice has been served. Helping her husband’s killer transform himself, Patty explains, “was my form of vengeance. I got a life for a life.”

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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