It began with alcohol, a crash and a funeral; it ended with a hug, forgiveness and a gift.
Sharon Howard lost her husband of 52 years to a drunken driver. Jeris Oberle lost his freedom and peace of mind.
In the end, the usual collection of lawyers couldn't do what these people did for themselves: Forgive and make amends.
On April 11, after drinking with friends, Jeris Oberle crashed into Robert Howard's flower-delivery truck. Howard was pronounced dead at the hospital. Oberle would be pronounced guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol.
As the legal case unfolded, Howard's children and grandchildren were outraged. They wrote letters to the judge asking for a maximum sentence and expressing their contempt for Oberle and his actions. Some of the letters were read in court. They were angry and bitter, and no one could begrudge such feelings.
But then there was Sharon.
Only minutes after learning that her husband was dead, Sharon made inquiries at the hospital: How was the young man? Two or three days later she called the hospital asking to talk to Jeris so she could see how he was doing. Unable to do that, she spoke instead to Jeris' father, Chris, and expressed her concern for his son.
Months later, Sharon received a letter from Chris, asking if his family could meet with her. Lawyers from both sides said no way. So did family members. Sharon agreed to the meeting anyway. "I just had this feeling I needed to talk to the family," says Sharon.
If anyone should be bitter, it was Sharon. She and Robert had endured hard times to reach their golden years. Married as teenagers, they lived in a house constructed of railroad ties and cardboard that they shared with wasps and mice. They slept under 17 blankets to stay warm, and when it rained, they pushed up on the roof where it sagged to roll off the water.
Bob worked at a grocery store for 65 cents an hour. Eventually, they were able to move into a trailer and later into a real house. He made a career of installing fire sprinklers. They produced seven children and lost one along the way. In retirement, Bob, 72, took part-time jobs cleaning movie theaters and delivering flowers.
Five years ago Bob was diagnosed with cancer. The day before he died, they celebrated the five-year anniversary of being cancer free. They were going to start having fun. The next day he and Sharon were going to go camping, and he would get to try out the four-wheeler he had just bought.
"Pinch me; I can't believe I finally got my own four-wheeler," he told Sharon.
And then he was dead.
From the start, Sharon felt no bitterness toward Jeris. "Bob's life ended far too soon, but this boy has his whole life ahead of him to live," says Sharon.
So the Oberles came to her home ?— Jeris and his mother and father. Jeris wrung his hands as he sat in her living room.
"He just poured out his heart to me," says Sharon, choking back tears. "He's the All-America boy, clean-cut, with a good upbringing, no prior criminal record. He has a wonderful, wonderful family. He just made a very bad decision."
He expressed his sorrow to Sharon. He said he was ready for anything the judge might throw at him. He hadn't had a drink since the accident. He wants to dedicate his life to God and to warning others about drinking and driving. He asked Sharon if she could forgive him.
"I never had any bitterness in my heart, and I still don't," Sharon says. "I told him he made a bad decision and that it will be with him all his life and that all I'd ask is that he learn from it."
As he got up to leave, Jeris had one request: "Could I give you a hug?"
They embraced in Sharon's living room. "He wouldn't let go of me," says Sharon. "It was such a tender moment. My heart cried out for him."
Jeris was sentenced to five years in prison. His parents have created a trust fund for Robert and Sharon's 18 grandchildren. As for Sharon, she did what Mindy Carter-Shaw did when her son, Bridger, was blown up by fireworks and what Chris Williams did when a drunken teen killed four members of his family in a car: She forgave.
Forgiveness — maybe it will catch on.
Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesdays. Please send e-mail to [email protected]