Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

An old boyfriend's apology allowed me to finally forgive myself

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I never expected an apology from this guy. Nor did I think I deserved one. I met him about 50 years ago in middle school. He was gawky, skinny and peppered with acne. My sister said he was a creep. I thought he was great. We would meet uptown and walk around. We'd look at books and records in the university store. We didn't talk much. A couple of times we made out under a tree by the lake.

Then, he wasn't so gawky anymore. In high school, adolescence gave him charisma. Charisma gave him permission to be inscrutable—and rude. Girls fell for him, including my sister. I was left way behind and figured it was my fault somehow.

He disappeared to Colorado. Super smart, he eschewed college and became a carpenter. Later, I learned that he'd had a nearly fatal heart infection, was divorced and happily remarried. The maverick who left me in the dust dissolved into these mundane, if sketchy details. I still thought, though, about those strange days, when I didn't understand that I wasn't to blame.

Many of the slights I've doled out over the years stem from the same insecurity. Although I befriended other outsiders, acute self-consciousness exposed my hypocrisy. I turned down an invitation to a school dance from a classmate who was half my height. I mocked a kid who had been my friend, but was considered goofy and a bit odd by others. My best friend didn't fare much better during a rough patch; although years later, she accepted my apology and we grew close again.

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My hesitance to do and say the right thing at crucial moments didn't abate with age. I wish I could apologize to Mrs. Sherman, for example. A one-time neighbor, she once confessed that she had only started to live when her authoritarian husband died. By now far advanced in age, she, herself, was impatient to die. When weeks went by and she didn't emerge from her home, I should have knocked on her door, brought soup. But my own fear of imposing kept me from doing so. She had been ill and had lost a lot of weight by the time her son arrived to care for her. When I saw her again, Mrs. Sherman said what I had known all along: I should have knocked.

Five years ago, the ex-maverick's name appeared on the guest list for my my 40th high school reunion. I was shocked. I had assumed that he was finished with his past. But on a frigid November night in New Jersey, there he was, hanging out with another disaffected classmate.

I screwed up my courage and said hello. He pretended he didn't recognize me; he said I looked so young. We shook hands. It turns out that he finally did graduate from college, was retired from a tech career and enjoying time with his grandchild.

"Why did you come?" I asked him. As it turned out, it was to make amends.

"I was a real jerk," he said. His apology both opened and soothed an old wound in my heart. We spoke of this and that and then I wandered off to chat with other friends. Before leaving, he gave me a hug. Now, we're Facebook friends.

I can't say that this minor redemption tale has alleviated my own shortcomings as a friend and neighbor. I'm still hesitant to knock on a door or call for fear of imposing. I can say, though, that when my long-ago, not-really sweetheart apologized, I was free to forgive myself, whom I had blamed for so many years.

Tags: friendship