When you decide there is a greater purpose to your life, it can set events in motion in ways you never imagined. Just ask Vicky Ruvolo.
Six years ago I wrote a column about her ordeal after a teenager on a thoughtless joyride tossed a frozen turkey at the car she was driving on Long Island. The impact shattered her face and nearly killed her. But her reaction to what happened has brought life and renewal to many people.
Ruvolo decided to forgive her assailant, a then-19-year-old Ryan Cushing. She learned all she could about his background, then insisted on pressing for a light sentence. In the emotional courtroom scene that followed, Ruvolo and Cushing tearfully embraced.
The story became widely known in these parts when the late President Gordon B. Hinckley, who then was president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, quoted it in a General Conference talk on forgiveness in 2005.
President Gordon B. Hinckley on "Forgiveness"
Today, it is fair to say Ruvolo's life is a sum total of the consequences of her decision. "I feel great," she told me in a phone interview. Yes, she has three titanium plates in her left cheek and two in her right. Yes, she now has her "own barometer," in which her face alerts her when the weather is about to change. Her wounds ache at times. But that neither defines nor obsesses her. A forgiving attitude seems to lessen the pain.
"I always thank God that he allowed me to come back so well," she said. "It's truly amazing."
Ruvolo has written a book, together with Attorney Rob Goldman, about her experiences. Titled, "No Room for Vengeance," it is scheduled to be published this fall but is available for pre-order right now on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.
Goldman, a criminal defense attorney and clinical psychologist who was tired of seeing "the never-ending revolving door of criminals entering and leaving the criminal justice system," was inspired after reading media reports about her. He and Ruvolo now work together on a program he devised to help troubled young people understand consequences and turn their lives around.
Ruvolo says her story really begins when she was 13 and her older brother died in a drug overdose. A few years later another brother died in a car accident. Then her brother-in-law was shot to death, and then, when she was 22, her nephew died when run over while riding his bike. Later, at age 35, she lost a baby eight months into her pregnancy.
People who believe their lives serve a greater purpose seek for meaning in tragedy, which crowds out feelings of anger and despair. Ruvolo now says all these events prepared her for that night when the turkey hurtled through her windshield.
Even so, she struggled when, after being unconscious for a month, the reality of her injuries hit home. "I cried myself to sleep," she said. "I wondered, what did I do, God, to deserve this?"
It was a question, not an accusation, which may be why she had an epiphany. "As I cried myself to sleep it dawned on me that God picked me for this because I was in such good shape I could survive it," she said. Ruvolo had been working in the gym, losing weight and adding strength. "I saved someone else's life who would not have been able to survive. That how I began to look at it."
Once she embraced God's hand in the incident, she naturally began to wonder what good thing he intended her to make of it.
Was insisting on a light sentence for Cushing the best choice? The question seems silly today.
"I had seen too many lives lost," she said. "How could I go on with my life knowing someone else is rotting in jail?"
Today she emails Cushing from time to time. He has completed his probation, has a job and is "doing wonderfully," she said.
And Ruvolo, armed with her life's greater purpose, can look back at something that might have crushed a less-forgiving person and crack a joke.
"Now, for the rest of my life I have to be known as the turkey lady," she said. "But that's better than if I had been hit with a ham. Then I would have been Miss Piggy."
She laughs, and despite all she has suffered, it's easy to laugh with her.