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I Did a Terrible Thing. How Can I Apologize?

I Did a Terrible Thing. How Can I Apologize?
30 Jun
6:32

I wanted it from the therapist, who had ended things in a violent way; I wanted it from my parents, and from others who had wronged me and never said sorry. Maybe, I thought, this was a universal longing — to be listened to, rather than apologized at.

She was generous, saying it meant a lot to her that I had come. I was expecting anger, but what she felt, she said, was a deep sadness. She, too, had known that our relationship, in those 14 years, had long been too smothering. But she was sad, almost unthinkably sad, that I left her in the way that I did.

Causing someone sadness is different from causing pain or fear. It’s duller, deeper, and it lasts longer. I sat with those words and felt tremendous remorse. I remembered a photo I had seen of her sitting by a window, some months after I had left her. She was still mostly bald from the chemo, and she stared hard into the camera, her mouth tugged back into a kind of grimace, as if she were swallowing the world. I did that to her, I knew, and more.

The instinct, of course, is to fill the space with language, but I wanted to take the time to bear the full weight of her telling.

“I’m so sorry,” I finally said, “for causing you such great sadness.”

We talked about ways to make amends; I had thought of everything from helping out with her kids to volunteering in cancer wards. But no, she said, the amends were here, in this process.

We talked then about teshuvah, my reckoning for why I had done what I did. The truth is, my ex and I had, in effect, grown up together, having started dating when I was 20. In a way, she had parented me. I had grown up with a very sick mother; she gave me the chance to feel loved and protected. But when that love was threatened by her illness, I could only think of rescue, much as I had when I was a child. My therapist offered that to me, and was the one person who, seemingly, would never get sick on me, never die. When I finally left the therapist, I learned what I should have known all along: that I was an adult, capable of standing on my own two feet and responsible for my own decisions.

“I forgive you,” she said.

My apology process was a lucky one. Not everyone is so magnanimous. But I wondered if our journey could serve as a model.

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