I’ve recently completed a memoir, Riding the Cyclone, the strange story of my chaotic, violent upbringing. As I began it, when the old faces began reappearing in my mind’s eye and the old conversations replaying in my head, I was surprised to discover how many people I wanted to thank. Or apologize to. In the pause between drafts, it dawned one me: hey, we have Google and Facebook now, I could probably find some of these people. I could still say thanks. Or even: I’m sorry, please forgive me. Now that was a scary thought. Took some getting used to. A few weeks, at least.
My first searches led to blind alleys; well, it had been forty years, after all. Then came the dreadful week in which I learned of first one death, then a second. Two thank-yous to swallow, one after the other, that slowed me way down. So it was a while before I had to face my first apology. The big apology. The one I dreaded. The day came, though, when I found myself staring at the home page of my old high school roommate, the one I blew up at. I’d raged at her with such volcanic fury that she’d fled the room in tears and wouldn’t return until I was gone. Then she moved her bed downstairs, where it barely fit. Dinah’s an artist now. She lives in a city on the east coast. Her website includes a Contact Me form. I clicked the button and began typing: “Greetings from your former high school roommate. [I felt sure that further elaboration was unnecessary. I knew she hadn’t forgotten. You don’t forget something like that.] I’m writing to say how very, very sorry I am for the way I exploded at you. I’ve regretted it for years, almost since the moment it happened. I hope you can forgive me. For what it’s worth, I never did anything like that again.” Her reply came soon. “I forgave you years ago. How are you?” We began corresponding. Finding a great deal to say to each other, we Skyped a few times. Eventually we got around to rehashing the incident that had triggered my outburst. “Wait a minute, you mean when you told the teacher I was doing drugs, you only meant pot? I didn’t even know about the LSD!” Together, we burst into laughter. Okay, I was no choir girl in high school; I was, admittedly, a mess. But to be able to laugh now at the whole thing as a colossal misunderstanding–how good that felt! I missed forty years of Dinah’s friendship, and for that, I’m truly sorry. But I have it now, and that feels wonderful.
I missed over forty years of Elly’s friendship, and it looks like I’m going to keep missing it. Elly is another person due an apology, for an older hurt. A deeper one. It didn’t take long to discover that the black girl (Negro, as we said in ’66) who was my friend in 8th grade, the girl I’d invited over to my house one Saturday and then, at the last minute, disinvited, was now a college professor. No surprise, she always was smart; it was one of the things I’d liked her for. I had her email address for months before I managed to use it. I rewrote that mail about fifty times. The message I finally sent was short and, despite the promise of the first line, didn’t explain much: “Greetings, and a very belated apology and explanation from your former friend and classmate. But the truth is so melodramatic. Over the top.The monster was there. If you’d come, you would’ve been hurt even worse. The woman my father paid to take care of me was a violent psychotic. But she wasn’t supposed to be there that afternoon. I’d been counting on her absence when I invited my friend over. Maybe I shouldn’t have invited her; it was too risky. But I was so lonely. It was so good, for once, to have a friend. And the crazy woman wasn’t supposed to be there. But she was, so my friend couldn’t come. She would’ve screamed at her, and who knows what? She was ignorant, hostile, without social inhibitions. Big and strong, too; when I told her I’d invited a black kid over, she beat the crap out of me. Then my father demanded that I call and cancel. Maybe this is what I should’ve said, right off: I know I hurt you. I’m sorry; I’m still sorry. I have an awful feeling I hurt you in an already-open wound, and for that, I am especially sorry. But it was to spare you something worse.” But how can you send someone a message like that, out of the blue, after 46 years? The dry, sane email I sent her said much less. Later, I printed a letter that said a bit more, and sent it along with a copy of the book. Which, after all, tells the whole story.
That was months ago. I’ve had no reply. I don’t expect one. So be it. Can’t help thinking, though, what a shame it is. A loss, all around. My life would’ve been more interesting with a friend like Elly, certainly. Wouldn’t her life, too, be better without this hurt? And that woman my father hired, the one shouting nasty racial epithets and pummeling me to the floor, what was her problem? I’ll never know for sure. But I do know that when the Nazis occupied her home town of Kristiansand, Norway for five years, she was a teenager. Memories of hunger tormented her. The rest we can only imagine. Think World War II is past and gone? No, it lives on in a billion places, such as the heart and mind of a college professor born eight years after it ended. All the hurt and harm we do to each other does not vanish on its own. There’s only one way to erase it. For the whole story, see www.ridingthecyclone.com.