I knew something was up when my father demanded the tape measure from my mother’s sewing basket and began to measure my chest, waist, inseam, and neck. Surely he couldn’t be preparing to sew me a suit.
No, I was being sized for a uniform. I, a boy with no interest nor skill in athletics, reared to sit for hours without making a sound, was to play Little League baseball.
Many tears, entreaties, and slammed doors later, my mother lifted the crumpled application from the trash and pleaded with me: “For your father. Try it. Just one season.”
I never missed a practice and always helped collect and stow the equipment afterward. In games, the coach let me play for the required two innings and not a second more. I was relegated to right field, except when a left-handed hitter was at bat. Then I was moved to the other side. When I came up to bat, the coach (who regularly beat his own son when the boy did not get a hit) told me, “Just let the ball hit you, and get on base. You’re a big kid. It won’t hurt.”
After the last game, my parents let me change in the back of the car, and they turned in my uniform then and there. We drove home in silence, until my father’s steely blue eyes caught mine in his rearview mirror. “I’m sorry,” he said.
My mother patted his arm, then turned and gave me a smile that said, This will never be discussed again.
And it wasn’t.
Nearly half a century later, I still cannot throw out that mitt.
Michael Z Murphy
Hillside, New Jersey
My mother-in-law possesses a level of compassion and sensitivity that seems out of reach to me. One day I dropped by her house unannounced and found her in the garden, talking to her flowers. I knew the gate would squeak if I opened it, so I stayed behind the fence and watched as she carefully cut perfect long-stemmed roses from her bushes. Every time she clipped, she apologized to the buds that hadn’t yet bloomed and were sacrificed in the cutting.
“I am so sorry,” she said to each one.
I watched her for a while before I let the gate squeak.
Los Angeles, California
Twenty years ago I had a job working with mentally handicapped children. Every other week I would spend my days and nights in a group home for girls. Linda and Susan both lived there. Linda had frequent temper tantrums and would kick. Susan couldn’t speak and was self-abusive. Neither of them was toilet trained. On my off weeks I lived at home with my active toddler and alcoholic husband.
I was nine months pregnant when my husband hit me for the first time. I hid it from my family and co-workers. I began to believe that it was my fault. I tried to be a better wife and not make him angry.
Once, the group-home staff took the girls on a field trip. I sat in the back seat beside Linda. It was a long ride, and Linda didn’t like to be in the car. She began to punch me in the arm repeatedly. Frustrated, I hit her back.
On another field trip I sat in the front, and Susan kicked the back of my seat for an hour. I was eight months pregnant and bone tired. When her shoe flew off and landed on the front seat, I picked it up and threw it back. It hit her face and left a mark.
I was fired from my job.
For the next twenty years, I worked as a secretary. Then one day I saw a call for volunteers to work with handicapped adults. I’d long wanted to apologize to Susan and Linda, but since that wasn’t possible, I decided to try to make a difference in the lives of other handicapped people.
One day I entered a classroom to help out, and there was Susan. She took me by the hand, led me to a cabinet, and pulled out a bag of blocks. Then we found a spot on the carpet and played together. They told me this was not an “appropriate” activity for her, but we had a good time anyway, and I kissed her cheek and hugged her when I left.
A week or so later I ran into Linda. When she saw me, she said, “Hi, Grandma!” and asked if I would take her to the mall, or to McDonald’s.
I’ve been a volunteer for two years now, and every other week I take Linda out to eat, or to the park, or to the mall.
This is my apology.
In 1992, I was raped at knifepoint in Chiapas, Mexico, by a young Guatemalan man whose mother had been killed in front of him by American soldiers when he was seven years old. Though he was never caught, I was able to forgive him and go on with my life.
Several years later, I was invited by the Alternatives to Violence Project to attend a three-day workshop for inmates at a maximum-security prison in New York State. On the second day, one of the young workshop participants began ranting about how despicable rapists are. (Rapists, I’d learned, are near the bottom of the prison hierarchy, just above pedophiles.) Listening to this man’s rage, I felt moved to speak. I had told my story to victims before, but it had never occurred to me to speak to offenders about my experience.
“I do not want any of you to misunderstand what I am about to say,” I told the group, “but I feel the need to say it. I was raped and almost murdered a few years ago, and while there is no excuse for what this man did — it is absolutely inexcusable — that doesn’t mean it is unforgivable. For me those are two different things.” All eyes in the circle were on me. “Just because someone does something horrible doesn’t make him a horrible person. It means he made a mistake.”
I could not tell what effect my comments had on my audience. As I wondered whether I had done the right thing, the inmates were called to lunch.
After lunch an inmate asked if he could speak to me in private. There is no private place in a maximum-security prison, but we went out in the hall. The nearest correctional officer was about fifteen yards away.
Due to this inmate’s eloquence and education, I had assumed that he was one of the few nonviolent offenders in the prison. In the hallway he began to wring his hands nervously. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he said.
“It’s OK,” I said. “Whatever it is, say it.”
He took a deep breath and asked, “Would you be a surrogate for me for a moment?”
I had no idea what he had in mind, but I felt safe, so I said yes.
Tears began to run down his cheeks as he spoke: “A long time ago, I hurt a woman very badly. I have tried to apologize to her family, but they want nothing to do with me. I respect that and do not want to hurt them any more than I already have. But I want you to know how deeply sorry I am for what I did.” He paused to take a breath. “And how deeply sorry I am for what was done to you.”
I was speechless. He was obviously trying hard not to fall to pieces in the middle of the corridor. After a moment, this giant of a man quietly asked, “Do you think you could forgive me?”
“Yes,” I said.
I wanted to hug him, but I knew that was definitely not allowed. Then he shyly asked, “May I hug you?” I nodded, and we quickly embraced. Thankfully, the correctional officer didn’t see us.
Afterward I wondered how many years that inmate had waited to apologize. How many thousands of other men — and women — in prison are waiting for someone to hear their heartfelt apologies? I knew then that I would do this work for the rest of my life.
Not all teachers are equal. I had a college professor who was a world authority on walnuts but couldn’t teach the basics of biology to freshmen. My logic professor was the same way. He set aside the class session prior to the midterm exam for a review. The problem was, we students didn’t understand the material well enough to ask intelligent questions — so no one asked any.
Incensed, the professor said, “I guess this means that you know the material by heart. Come tomorrow, you had damned well better know it. You may have time to waste, but I don’t.”
He left, slamming the door loudly. About half the class failed the course. The professor’s position was unwavering: He had done his job. Those who failed had not done theirs.
By far my favorite teacher was my Old Testament professor in seminary. He usually addressed the class as “boys.” (There were no female students in the seminary then.) One day, however, he addressed us as “gentlemen.”
“Gentlemen,” he said, “without exception, you have all done poorly on the last examination. There is only one explanation for this.” We waited for the blame to fall. “I have failed as your teacher. I apologize and ask for your forgiveness.”
We were shocked. It was unheard of for a teacher to apologize for a student’s failure, yet he was sincere. “We will review the material again,” he continued. “A new examination will be given. I am truly sorry for having failed you. I will try to do better.”
“I’m sorry this happened to you,” she says, and I hear in her voice a hint of understanding and recognition. She is good at apologizing. I wonder how often she has said this. She must be busy, this professional apologizer for the archdiocese’s decades of neglect and child abuse. At least the church hired her. I suppose that’s worth something.
The priest who molested me is long dead and would never have apologized anyway. Would I feel better if the bishop himself said, “I’m sorry,” instead of this woman he has hired to do it for him? I’ll never know. He’s as unlikely to utter those words as the dead priest.
“The therapist of your choice,” says the well-meaning apology professional. “An hour a week.” We both know it is not enough. A broken life cannot be put back together, especially not in one hour a week.
What good is an apology, really?
“My husband and I conceive just by thinking about sex,” I joked. My colleague Bree’s face fell, and she changed the subject.
As we became closer, Bree confided that she had been trying for a year to get pregnant. She had seen a physician, and the prognosis wasn’t good: she was ovulating about once every two months, and her hormone levels were low.
She said sex had become a medical procedure; there was no time for the sensual, the spiritual. She felt resentment toward friends who became pregnant with ease, and anger at mothers with four children. I marked Bree’s cycle on my calendar to remind myself that she would likely be distant and hurt when her period came.
This went on for a year. Then, unexpectedly, I got pregnant with my third child. After the initial shock and excitement wore off, I thought, What am I going to say to Bree? Although it wasn’t logical, I felt as if I had betrayed her. I decided to write her a letter so she could react without me as her audience.
Her response came a few days later. She thanked me for my letter, but said she didn’t see any way that we could continue to be friends.
I was devastated. At work Bree bowed out of a project on which we had been collaborating. She wouldn’t sit with me during lunch or at meetings. I felt uncomfortable and isolated. If someone brought up my pregnancy, I would try to change the subject. Whenever I was tempted to complain about morning sickness or my anxieties over becoming a mother of three, I always thought about Bree and remained silent.
A couple of weeks before I left on maternity leave, my friends threw me a shower, and Bree attended. Not only did she attend, but she brought a sweater she had knitted for my baby. I was speechless.
Afterward Bree invited me to go for a walk. “I wish I could tell you that I simply stopped being hateful and jealous,” she said, “but seeing you have everything that I couldn’t was too much. The only reason I could come to your shower and make a gift for your baby was because I finally got what I wanted. I’m pregnant. Can you forgive me?” she asked.
I had wondered how I would feel if and when this moment came. Would I harbor anger or resentment? The answer was no. Her apology was enough.
When my mother was close to dying, she momentarily emerged from her morphine fog and said to me, “There’s something I have to tell you. Something about Happy.”
Happy had been my childhood dog. Mom had been at the mental hospital a year when Dad brought him home. We kept Happy outside, in a chicken-wire pen. As soon as I got home from school, I’d run to his pen, lie on my back in the grass, and let him cover me with licks.
As Happy got older, we house-trained him and kept him inside, but he grew restless. He was an English foxhound, bred to run long distances. He would pace back and forth in front of the door, barking sharply or throwing his head back and howling. He grated on our nerves so much that we’d sometimes just open the door, and off Happy would go.
When I was ten, my father left for a yearlong research project in London. Mom was home from the hospital, and it was just her and Happy and me. Happy began to come home with his sides torn up from getting caught in barbed wire. One time he returned whimpering and oozing blood from several gashes, one of them so deep a bit of intestine peeked out. The vet sewed him up, and Mom and I tried to keep him in, but as soon as he healed, he started pacing and howling again. Finally one of us let him out, and sure enough, Happy came back with his wound reopened. We had to leave him with the vet for a week this time.
When it was time for Happy to come home, Mom said the veterinarian knew a farmer who was looking for a dog. “Happy would have a big farm to live on, and could run all he wanted without getting into trouble. The vet thinks it’s best: Happy just keeps getting hurt living here. What do you think?”
Happy was my pal. I loved him and didn’t want to lose him. But I didn’t want him to keep getting hurt either. I went to my room and cried. When I came out, I said the vet could give Happy to the farmer.
On her deathbed, my mother said, “There was no farmer. That was just a story I made up.” Her voice caught. “I just couldn’t handle Happy anymore. I had him put to sleep. Can you forgive me?”
I was so shocked that I laughed out loud. All these years my mother had kept this secret. Given the immediacy of her dying, Happy’s death seemed faraway and unimportant. “Of course, Mom,” I replied. I wanted there to be no hard feelings between us, and so I overlooked my own.
Several years after my mother’s death, I thought about her decision to have Happy killed, and felt a hint of fury. Had there been no other way to tame my dog’s wildness? She’d robbed me of one of the few things that had given me comfort and joy in my childhood.
Since I was a young girl, I’d been taught never to be angry at my mother; it wasn’t her fault she was sick. Anger that had been buried for decades now leaked out. I imagined a different deathbed conversation with my mother: I’d take her dear face in my hands and tell her, “Mom, I have hated you. At this moment, I hate you. I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?”
As a girl, I apologized for everything that went wrong. If dinner was bad, if the rain came early, if a frown creased my mother’s face, it was my fault. I’d say I was sorry before I even knew what had happened.
At the age of thirteen I was put in therapy for anxiety attacks. When I told my therapist about my father’s abuse, she reported it to the authorities. The news got back to other family members, and my father told everyone that I was a compulsive liar, hungry for attention. My mother asked me what I had done to make my father come on to me.
I hadn’t done anything. I was just being thirteen. If I moved, he commented on my hips. If my shirt was too tight, he fondled my breasts.
The females in my family believed that if a man gets aroused, it’s the woman’s fault. Men can’t help themselves, and women have to be ever vigilant. Obviously, I had been wrong to speak about it, wrong to tell my therapist about the baths, the way he dressed me in lingerie when his friends came over.
By the time I was seventeen, I hadn’t seen my father in years. I decided I would try to reestablish a relationship with him. I had been young when the abuse happened. Maybe it had all been in my mind. Part of me felt guilty about the furor I’d caused — the court orders, the meetings with the social workers. Perhaps I could make amends. After all, he was my father.
I brought my boyfriend with me so I would feel safe. The meeting was polite, but I could tell my father had been drinking. His eyes were red, and when he kissed my cheek, his lips were wet and sticky.
At one point my boyfriend got up to use the bathroom, leaving me alone with my dad. As soon as the bathroom door had closed, my father turned to me and said, “What was all this crap about me molesting you? What in the hell did you tell those people?”
I wasn’t prepared for this. My mouth got dry, and I felt a sore patch in the back of my throat. I pretended to fiddle with the dirty dishes in the sink. He wanted to know why I would make up such lies. He demanded I apologize for the heartache I had caused him, not to mention the shame and the attorney’s fees. What had I been thinking?
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have said anything. It was all a big misunderstanding.”
“You’re right,” he said, grabbing another beer. “People don’t understand things, and you can’t be telling them about us. I am your father, for God’s sake. What happens in the family should stay in the family.”
I felt ill and ashamed of my inability to keep my mouth shut. My mother was right: It was probably my imagination. I was a slut for thinking my own father would do such things to a girl of thirteen. I wanted him to stop being mad at me. I wanted his approval again. “I am so sorry, Dad,” I said.
He glared at me; then his eyes softened the way they had when I was a girl, and he gave me a hug. That feeling of being his little girl came over me, and I wanted to cry. I wanted my old dad back: the one who would take me fishing, who loved my drawings and bragged about me to everyone.
I heard the toilet flush, and I went to the fridge to get a soda. When I bent down to get ice out of the freezer, I felt my father shove his beer bottle against my ass and rub it up and down. The bottle was cold. The bottle cap pulled at the threads of my cotton shorts. Bile came up in my throat. I slowly rose and turned around. By then my boyfriend was back, and I announced it was time to leave.
My father leaned over to me and said, “I suppose you’re going to tell the authorities about that, too?” Then he laughed, opening the bottle and tipping it back.
I don’t apologize anymore unless I mean it.
When I made my husband angry, I got the silent treatment. I’d seen enough of this in my childhood home, where my stepmother would disappear behind a slammed door and not emerge for a week or more. I wasn’t about to put up with the same from my husband. I’d do anything to break the silence. So I hit him.
It worked. He called me a bitch and sometimes hit me back.
Later I discovered a far better way to break the silence: bake cookies. The smell always brought my husband out of hiding. Reluctantly but faithfully, he’d follow his nose to the kitchen. “Have a cookie?” I’d say, and he’d reach for one and say, “Hey, life’s too short for us to argue.”
“Yeah,” I’d agree, pulling another sheet from the oven.
It didn’t matter which of us said “I’m sorry” first. There wasn’t any issue that couldn’t be smoothed over by fat, white, vanilla cookies spread on newspaper to cool.
Las Vegas, New Mexico
My younger brother was a surprise. No one had thought that my mother would give birth again. But she never let on that Alejandro was anything less than a godsend.
At the hospital, I fantasized about changing the name tags, but what would have been the point? Either way, I’d been bumped from my position as the baby of the family. I was now a middle child.
After they brought Alejandro home from the hospital, my mother would spend hours holding him and prattling in baby talk: “How is my little man today? My sweet protector.” At family gatherings he was the center of attention and the recipient of all praise.
When I was eight, my family attended an elaborate wedding in Coral Gables, Florida. There were at least a thousand guests, three tennis courts, a miniature-golf course, and an Olympic-size swimming pool. The children were all invited to put on their suits and go for a swim. Alejandro stripped down to his Bullwinkle briefs and stepped into the shallow end of the pool, by the stairs. I was sitting close by, on the top step. He kept trying to squeeze a stream of water from his cupped hands, the way Dad had taught us. It’s simple. Any idiot could do it. But water seeped through Alejandro’s fingers. Moron.
He started to hum a lullaby my mother had sung to me — and, more recently, to him. He was so off-key it was painful. I moved closer. His back was to me. I lifted my leg, arched my foot, and pushed on his back with my big toe, knocking him down a step. He turned around and smiled. I smiled back. My foot waddled playfully, then snaked back toward him. Lift, arch, push. Another step. He did not smile back. Not so dumb after all. Lift, arch, push. Water above his chin. Water above his mouth. Water above his nose.
Our eyes locked for about five seconds: a long time when you’re waiting for someone to die. Then down he went. His arms flapped wildly, reaching for me, but I pulled away and pressed my legs against my chest. His body jerked back and forth, and he tried to lift his chin above the water. Then all movement ceased. The water grew calm; the ripples disappeared. I could make out his small face beneath the surface, eyes wide open.
I heard a loud splash, and an adult in a tuxedo pulled Alejandro from the bottom of the pool. People were screaming and pressing down hard on his chest. Water squirted out the side of his mouth. My mother lay next to him crying, holding his tiny little hand. He would live.
I ran to the other side of the pool, terrified someone had seen. My knees buckled, and I collapsed onto the gravel by the changing room. I was safe. Then I saw Caridad, my sister, staring straight at me. She knew.
Caridad is married now with two kids and has a beautiful home in Maryland. I visit them twice a year. There hasn’t been one visit where the near-drowning incident has not been brought up in lighthearted conversation. The kids beg me to tell their friends about the time I tried to kill my brother. They laugh long and hard.
I went home for Christmas last month and sat across the dinner table from Alejandro. For two hours he sat there and smiled, still waiting for me to accept him. Just say the word, his eyes beckoned. But every time I looked into those eyes, I saw the face of a small child, wide-eyed, underwater, his hands reaching out for me. And I knew that if that man had not jumped in the pool that day, I would have let him die.
I wanted to tell him how horrible and cruel I was; how he hadn’t deserved it. I wanted to say I’m sorry, but I couldn’t. My guilt was too great.
I don’t know if he remembers. I know that I cannot forget.
New York, New York
The math is all wrong: thirty babies and only four arms to hold them. They lie on the floor, crying and swiping at flies. Those who are old enough to speak call any woman “Mama.” They hang from my legs, noses dripping with snot, eating bread and offering some to me. They are offering me food: me, in my Guess jeans, who can fly home any time I choose.
The orphanage is neatly tucked away in Antigua, Guatemala, far from the eyes of tourists. The cries here never cease. The babies know no breast, only plastic nipples, chronic sickness, and loneliness.
I hold a baby boy, three months old. He does not have the eyes of an innocent child, but the gaze of a grown man. I hold him the longest.
To go back to my life at day’s end is both awful and a relief. I hear the three-month-old screaming as I walk away. A tear rolls down my cheek. If only I could save just him, I will have made a difference in this life. I promise myself I will volunteer again tomorrow, and every day while I’m here in Guatemala.
The next day, I do not return. I tell myself that the babies were sick, that my immune system is weak, and I can’t afford to catch their diseases. It’s not my job to save them. I’m not abandoning them.
But I have seen what exists behind those red brick walls, and I feel an overwhelming guilt for not taking time out from my life to help care for those children. On my last day in Guatemala, I kneel inside the temple of La Merced, cross my heart, and whisper to whoever may be listening: “Please, forgive me — for I am human, selfish, sheltered, and sorry.”
My father was the second oldest of seven children. His mother died of a brain tumor when he was seventeen. His father, a violent alcoholic who had beaten his wife, promptly abandoned the children. The younger ones were placed in foster care or in the Catholic Home for Working Boys. My dad kept track of them all, hoping to bring them together under one roof someday. He never did.
My grandfather held an inexplicable grudge against my father. He would mail Dad postcards from seaports around the world that read, “Dear Jim, I’m alive, no thanks to you.” Toward the end of his life, my grandfather lived on the street in New York City. My dad paid the owner of a flophouse my grandfather frequented to make sure his father always had a meal and a bed. My grandfather died in that flophouse, of tuberculosis, sometime in the thirties.
My father did not tell me these stories until I had kids of my own. By then I was mad at my dad because his own drinking had made our home a scary place for me as a child. I was mad at my mom because she’d been so passive, hardly ever getting out of bed. I was mad at my brother for leaving home and never looking back. I was mad at my sister for being everyone’s favorite. I felt the world owed me one big apology.
My mom had plenty of time to apologize as she lay dying, but she didn’t. My dad didn’t apologize for his drinking, but he did get sober; that was apology enough for me. It was a pleasure to listen to him hum a tune as he stood on a ladder in my house, making electrical repairs for me and the kids.
I am older now and have learned what a mistake it is to wait around for people to apologize. A wise person once said that holding on to anger is like eating rat poison and expecting the rat to die.
No longer do I look down on people who offend me, extending forgiveness from my lofty perch. I understand now how limited we all are by circumstances, time, place, history, and luck. We humans are a frail lot; compassion seems to be the only thing that saves us.
My father always said, “Educating women is a poor investment.” He believed females were meant for housekeeping and babies, not books and jobs.
After high school, I went to work as a secretary for an engineering company. The work was boring, but I figured it was the best I could do. It was 1960.
One day I was waiting in front of the supply cage in the production area when I felt a hand swat my butt.
Sister Andrea had made one thing clear to us girls in Catholic school: no one touches us without our permission. Without a second’s pause, in front of everyone in production, I pivoted on the ball of my foot and backhanded Mr. Simpson, the director of sales, across the face. Then I walked out, past the aghast and delighted assembly workers.
That evening I got a call from Mr. Simpson’s secretary, who told me I had caused a scandal. Though it was true Mr. Simpson touched women all the time, she said, we must not react. She said she was sorry, but I had crossed a line and would surely be fired.
The president’s secretary also called and told me I had made a big mistake, that the company was in an uproar, and that, as much as she liked me, she wasn’t sure she could save my job. The personnel department would deal with me in the morning.
The next morning, the head of personnel called me in to hear my side of the story. It seems he had talked to a few witnesses, and he believed my version of what had happened, but he didn’t sympathize with my predicament. He said the decision was out of his hands, and he sent me back to work.
The next day I was called into the senior vice-president’s office to tell my story once again.
“I believe you,” the vice-president said. “Mr. Simpson’s behavior has been out of line for some time. I have told him that there is one condition he must meet to continue working for our company: he must apologize to you to your satisfaction.” Then he added, “Thank you. Keep believing in yourself, and you will go far.”
Mr. Simpson apologized and saved his job. I saved eight hundred dollars out of my $1.33-an-hour wages and enrolled in college the next fall. I went on to earn a PhD, and in 1983 I wrote sexual-harassment-education guidelines for eight university campuses. I wonder what Dad would have thought.
For the last five years I was a high-limit baccarat and blackjack dealer in one of the largest casinos in Las Vegas. I sometimes took millions of dollars from customers within hours. The single greatest asset a high-limit dealer can possess is the ability to keep people happy while they piss away all their money. The casino didn’t care how technically proficient I was at dealing. As long as the guests liked me and were having fun, they would keep playing. And as long as they kept playing, they would keep losing.
I recently quit dealing and moved to Michigan to resume my education. Now I can finally say I’m sorry to the people I hurt.
I apologize for warmly welcoming you every time you walked in. I apologize for teaching you baccarat and telling you the odds were great. (They aren’t.) I apologize for smiling all the time. When you were losing, I felt like saying, “Run! Flee this place!” But I didn’t. I smiled my charming, boyish smile, and you opened up your checkbook and dug a little deeper into your son’s college fund.
I apologize for letting the waiters serve you five more drinks while you drained the last penny from your bank account. I apologize for being so jaded that I didn’t cry with you when you lost everything.
I understand that it was your money. I know I never forced you to play — I just made you feel good about doing it. It amounted to the same thing: You would walk in with a wad of money. I would stroke your ego and perform for you until you were spent. Then I would report to my pit boss how much we’d made off your addiction that night.
I used to tell myself that if I weren’t dealing to you, someone else would be; that I was just doing my job.
As small children, my sister and I would huddle in a corner and watch in silent dread as my stepfather blackened our mother’s eyes and bloodied her nose, cracked her ribs and ripped the hair out of her head (a sound I could never describe, but could feel). Blood mixed with the tears on her cheeks as she cowered but never fled from his fists. Our carpet was stained red with it. The sidewalk out front had a crack I was convinced had been caused by the back of my mother’s skull.
After each beating, our stepfather would leave and return hours, or sometimes days, later, having traded his fists for flowers, or a bottle of wine, or a basket of strawberries out of season. A smile would have replaced the snarl, concern replacing the hate in his eyes. He would speak softly to our mom, clean her wounds, and bring her coffee in bed.
The two most dangerous words I knew growing up were “I’m sorry.” They brought false hope; they made us believe, if only momentarily, that everything was going to be OK.
Santa Rosa, California
I didn’t marry until I was thirty. I’d had several abortions and had never planned to have children. My husband wanted a family, however, so we conceived.
When I miscarried at three months, I was relieved, but my husband was heartbroken. “The next time I’ll carry in winter,” I told him. “I don’t think I can handle the summer heat.” Secretly, I had no intention of ever getting pregnant again.
That October, however, I became pregnant. I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want another abortion, but I didn’t want a child, either. I decided to give the baby up for adoption.
My decision was devastating to my husband, but he supported me as best he could. A friend’s sister and her husband couldn’t have children, so I offered the child to them. They were puzzled as to why I’d want to give the baby up, but were happy to be its parents. They agreed to take care of all financial matters — which was good, because my husband and I had little money or resources.
Around my third month of pregnancy, I was talking with my neighbor, a nurse who was never short on opinions. When she learned that I was planning to give my baby up for adoption, she was appalled and demanded to know why. I told her I could never give my child a nice home, that I would always be lacking as a parent.
She stubbed out her cigarette and said, “You will be the best mother your child could ever have. No one could do a better job — no one.” She was adamant. And I knew she was right. I told the couple I would not be giving up my child.
The pregnancy went beautifully, and my son was born at home on July 12, 1987. After everyone else had left the room, I held him in my arms and gazed into his eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know it was you.”
Pacific Grove, California
At Passover, I stay up late with my stepcousin while she gets embarrassingly drunk. Fiona and I have never really talked before. She was just a kid when her mom married my Uncle Jack, and we barely know each other.
Late in the evening, when Fiona’s really inebriated, she asks if I want to hear about how my uncle molested her. She laughs hysterically and wonders aloud if I will believe her.
Uncle Jack is my favorite uncle. He and I have a bond. He’s quirky and worldly and marries beautiful women. But there have been rumors. At his last divorce, we heard accusations from a previous stepdaughter, Sarah. So I don’t doubt Fiona for a second.
Over the next few months, I talk to my brothers and my parents. With Fiona’s permission, we plan to confront my uncle. We need answers, not for Fiona — she doesn’t want to be there — but for ourselves. On behalf of the family, I write a letter to Jack, inviting him to talk to us about the accusation. To our surprise, he accepts.
We meet at my brother’s house. Jack arrives with Fiona’s mom, Sue. (They are still married.) We greet each other as if it were a Seder. My parents don’t know what to do. I get things started by announcing why we are there. My brother demands the truth. My father sobs and wishes he and Jack could just go fishing, the way they used to. My mother says nothing.
Jack’s not young. His health is failing, and he looks pitiable. He listens, then speaks calmly: “Yes, I did it. I wish I could tell you why.” Yes, Sarah, too. Yes, he’s sorry, terribly sorry. Yes, he realizes now how horrible it was. He’s been trying himself to understand how he could have done such a monstrous thing. He would do anything to repair the damage. He’s terribly, terribly sorry.
That he does not deny it is a huge relief. We were prepared for a battle. That he apologizes and seems genuinely contrite confounds us a little. You can’t just apologize for something like that! I think. I don’t really know what it is I want him to do. There’s nothing he can do. I want him to go away.
Now I think maybe there is something he can do: instead of pretending that things are back to normal, he can acknowledge that they’re not, that they’re never going back to normal, and that, barring some kind of inspired and ongoing act of penitence on his part, he will not be forgiven.
But Jack will never do that. He’ll fade away, alone and barely tolerated by his family, making birthday calls that go unanswered.
The hardness in my heart unsettles me. He was my favorite uncle. But I cannot grant him forgiveness.
My friend Susan and I were taking our two four-year-olds, Anna and Nate, on a camping trip. Thirty minutes into the drive to the campground, Susan’s daughter started to sob in her car seat. “Nate’s being mean,” she said. “He says his dog is tougher than my unicorn.”
Trying to make light of their stuffed-animal battle, I said, “Oh, that’s just pretend play, sweetie. Nate is just playing.”
But Anna’s sobs kept getting louder. Nate seemed oblivious. I was feeling pressured to deal with the situation, but my sluggish brain was drawing a blank.
Suddenly Susan pulled the car over and said to the kids, “You need to be kind to each other and be friends. This is a special trip. Nate, you tell Anna you are sorry, or we are turning around and going home.”
I couldn’t believe Susan was placing all the blame on Nate. Could she really believe that his bragging about a stuffed animal warranted such a reaction from Anna? Anna was obviously tired or hungry or just plain restless from being in the car. I felt the need to show solidarity with the other adult, however, so I asked Nate to please tell Anna he was sorry. “Can’t you see how upset she is?”
By now Anna was nearly hyperventilating. Nate sat in his car seat looking angry, his mouth tight. I was desperate to start moving again and eager for this all to be forgotten, but most of all I was angry. I grabbed Nate’s stuffed dog from him, threw it on the floor of the car, and yelled, “You need to say you are sorry!”
He started to cry and shouted, “I won’t say I’m sorry. Leave me alone. Drive the car, just drive the car!”
Through her sobs, Anna said, “You need to say you’re sorry or I’m not your friend anymore. You’re being mean. Nate is being mean!”
I jumped from the car in an adrenaline fog, convinced our trip was over. After pacing for a while in the heat and regaining a bit of my sanity, I released Nate from his car seat and held him while he continued to cry.
Now I was angry at Susan. She had blown this whole thing out of proportion, but I didn’t have the guts to stand up to her. I was afraid of losing her friendship and even more afraid of looking like a bad parent. I wanted Nate just to say he was sorry, whether he meant it or not. When he had stopped crying, I explained to him how saying he was sorry would help Anna feel better, and that it was OK to talk about how his feelings had been hurt too.
When we got back in the car, Anna and Susan seemed to be in better spirits. Nate offered a barely audible “I’m sorry,” which, to my surprise, Susan accepted. Anna and Nate made up within minutes, their sobs turning to giggles.
Two days and two sleepless nights later, our camping trip was over, but I still couldn’t let go of the fight. I’d decided that forcing my son to apologize had been wrong, and that if I never talked to Susan about it, there would always be something unpleasant between us. We arranged a time to talk.
Susan did most of the talking. I listened and cried a lot. She was dancing around the truth, but the dance was so beautiful, so much better than truth that I didn’t care. We laughed about how easy it was for the kids to make up and move on; how it took us three days to do what they could do in three minutes.
Only later, as I was driving home, did it occur to me that she’d never said she was sorry.