My parents moved into the house they live in now a little over ten years ago, when I was in middle school. The neighborhood is nice, the town is lovely, and everything about the move there was happy and exciting. But upon arriving and settling their things, they discovered that our next-door neighbor was about the last person you’d want to spend your time in close proximity with. He was mean, curmudgeonly, and constantly insisting on the barriers between our houses. He once berated and swore at my mother for trimming a plant that was on our property, simply because it reduced some of the privacy he had grown accustomed to. He was not above saying nasty things to my parents when he crossed them and even my father, the perpetual Nice Guy, had given up hope that he would ever come around.
A year or so ago, this neighbor was diagnosed with cancer. It was aggressive, and though he was relatively young, his prognosis was bleak. He lost an eye to his tumor and his health declined very rapidly. Though he wasn’t acknowledging my father, he had stopped his negative comments and dirty looks, so all had more or less calmed down. About a month ago, though, he came over to our house in the afternoon when my father was working at his desk and knocked on the door. His wife was holding him by the arm and propping him up, and his face had become a blur of bandages and sunglasses to cover as much as he could. He told my father, in a weak, small voice, that he was sorry for how mean he had been, that he was sorry for how he had treated my parents, and that he wanted my father to forgive him. My father said that he understood, and that it was okay. Our neighbor repeated that he wanted my father to forgive him, that he needed to be forgiven. My father said, “I forgive you.” His wife turned to our neighbor and said, “See? I told you he was nice.” She thanked my father and they shuffled back into their house. My father left a thank-you note on their door later that day.
Two days later, our neighbor passed away.
I have been thinking about this a lot recently, as has my father. He was struck by our neighbor’s desire, in his last days, to apologize for something that — in the grand scheme of his life — must have been rather minor. Friends and family from all over were parked out in front of their house at that point, so there were clearly many more pressing matters to attend to and people to spend time with. But for whatever reason, it was indispensable to our neighbor that he right a wrong that he had committed against someone, even if it was squabbling over trimming a hedge.
But when I think about my own life, and the people I have hurt, there are acute moments which come back to me over and over, moments that the other person involved may have even forgotten about, but still gnaw at my conscience. There are things that I have said and done to people, whether in flippant dismissal or calculated cruelty, which I know in every sense of the word were wrong. When I go back through my relatively short life and consider the friend I called a name on the schoolyard, or the lover whose trust I betrayed, or even my own parents whose unconditional love I have sometimes taken for granted and occasionally spit back in their faces, I am ashamed. I am not just ashamed that I committed these acts, but that in my own pride and misguided sense of entitlement, I didn’t take the time to sincerely apologize. More wounding than the initial misdeed is my seeming ability to carry on my life as though nothing happened, refusing to even briefly acknowledge the pain I have caused.
Apologies are a difficult thing, they are walking across a path of broken glass and trying not to cut your foot. There is a desire to avoid actually saying what it is you’re apologizing for, to avoid reliving, word-for-word, the wrong you have committed. There are so many apologies which, out of this desire for self-preservation and disdain for rehashing the ugly, are as empty and hollow as if they had said nothing at all. We say we’re sorry that people were hurt, or that they were offended, or that they were sad, or any other combination of words that prevent us from having to say, “I’m sorry that what I did was wrong, that I hurt you like that, that I treated you that way.” It is so hard to say “I’m sorry that I kissed someone else,” “I’m sorry I told your secret,” or “I’m sorry I called you ugly.” These are cruel, awful things that we do to each other — and it is natural that we want to pretend, even to those we hurt, that we didn’t really do them. It’s so much easier for us to sweep these things under the rug with a disingenuous turn of phrase.
And sometimes I am overwhelmed with the desire to make a list of the wrongs I have done and go down it, one by one, checking them off as I make amends to each person, one after the other. But I am afraid that such an act would come off as contrived, insincere, more about assuaging my own guilt than making them feel as though their pain has been acknowledged and, to some degree, shared. And perhaps it is. Perhaps I do just want to feel as though I have atoned for all of the sins I’ve committed against another, no matter how insignificant the transgression or how limited our connection was. Even the stranger I was rude to on the metro for no reason other than my own headache deserves a small “I’m sorry, that was wrong.” Perhaps it is human nature to want to get these things off our chests and be reassured that we are forgiven, that we are still loved, that we are still good. But I do know that I have seethed at wrongs committed against me, and I know that someone coming to me in sincerity and telling me they regret it would have been a welcome relief. I know that to watch people go about their lives without an ounce of guilt, when they know deep down that they have been cruel to you, can be difficult to bear.
In the end, I am glad that our neighbor apologized to my father. I am glad that my father said, and truly meant, that he was forgiven. I am glad that for the rest of his life, my father will not look back on that man with resentment or anger, only a warm reminder that life is short, and though we will inevitably hurt one another from time to time, it is never too late to say that we were wrong.