Love Travels Backward

It is never too late to say what we need to say.

Practical Magic is one of my favorite movies, which is particularly intriguing as I didn’t really like the book. There you have it, though, as almost everyone has experienced: loved the book, hated the movie; liked the movie, despised the book. It’s pretty rare to enjoy both equally.

But I’ve gone off on a tangent. Among the many reasons that I favor the movie is a single line at the end, when character Sally Owens’ asks in a voice-over, “Can love travel backward in time to heal a broken heart?”

And the answer to that question is, as I have only recently learned, a resounding yes.

You see, when my mother died in 2010, my family was, and had been for some time, sundered. Maternal problems compounded of mental illness, unending lies, drug use, physical abuse, and alcoholism meant that one of my brothers had not spoken to anyone in the family other than myself and my daughter for twenty-plus years, while my other sibling, dealing with a raft of personal issues that had resulted in poverty and homelessness, was also usually incommunicado. My daughter and I, declaring ourselves Switzerland, stubbornly maintained neutrality in the midst of all this dissension. (Unfortunately, unlike Switzerland, we didn’t have all the family money holed up in anonymous bank accounts!)

But being neutral often also meant rarely seeing or hearing from most of our family members except at holidays. It was a lonely position to uphold, but we would not cut ourselves off from anyone.

Finally, about a year and a half after Mom passed away, my older brother and my father reconciled at last. The relief I felt was palpable. Our Dad wasn’t getting any younger, and I did not want him to go down into the darkness without his oldest son as part of his life. Meanwhile, following another rocky couple of years, my younger brother found his feet at last, and, moving to another city, got a good job and found a stable relationship, finally seeming happy and secure.

Enter 2021… Dad, who had been terrifically healthy until about his 89th year, had been visibly failing as he moved into his 90s. Hospitalized in late June, he quickly spiraled downward, never returning home, and finally dying in December of that year.

The burden of his care during those months fell primarily upon my older brother and me, although we found ourselves fortunate enough to have relatives and family friends who pitched in to help. I honestly do not know how people without friends and family survive situations like this. Even splitting the ticket, the work was relentless, and it did not end with my father’s death, for we still had to clear his home of 58 years’ worth of accumulated possessions before it could be sold.

Eventually, though, all was completed: funeral held, estate inventoried, bills paid, possessions distributed, house sold—all the painful minutiae of a person’s passing completed, finalized, finished, done.

It was during this conclusion that my older brother explained to our younger sibling the final distribution of funds according to our father’s will. He described the co-executor’s fee that Dad had included, explaining that it meant I would receive a little extra from the estate. Concerned that there might be some misunderstanding over this, he’d prepared a straightforward explanation: not just that I had been there to help throughout the six months of our father’s dying, but had stepped up to do the majority of the work in cleaning out Dad’s home.

It was at this point that my brother said the words that, for me, lifted a burden that I had not even realized I’d been carrying for twelve long years: he acknowledged to our sibling, “Neither you nor I were there when Mom died. Our sister handled it all: the weeks at the hospital, the funeral, cleaning out all mom’s hoarding, and taking care of Dad for months until he was back on his feet again. Now that I’ve been through it, I’ve got a real appreciation of what she handled all alone. That’s another reason why she deserves this extra money.” Perhaps not surprisingly, hearing this, our younger brother completely agreed.

But for me, that acknowledgement—not the money, but the words—lifted an almost unbearable weight that I did not even know I had been shouldering.

With my older brother’s admission, and my younger brother’s agreement, love—appreciation, respect, acknowledgement—travelled backward in time to heal the portion of my heart that I was unaware had been broken during the excruciating weeks that my mother lay dying, and the painful aftermath of her passing.

Twelve years later, my heart is lighter. The memories of lonely responsibility are cleansed. And all because the words, words I did not even know I needed so desperately to hear, were spoken at last.

Love travelled backward in time to mend my broken heart.

It is never too late to say what we need to say. And it is never too late to hear what we need to hear.

You might also enjoy reading “The Speech of Angels”, which you may locate in the Archives, below, from October 24, 2017.

Reconciliation Day

Reconciliation Day—April 2 in the U.S.–was established in 1989 as a day to make amends: to apologize, repair a damaged or fractured relationship, and (most importantly) to accept an extended olive branch.  

There is nothing quite as bad as an apology that isn’t…except, perhaps, an apology that is rescinded.

I was thinking about all of this on the most recent Reconciliation Day as I recalled two apologies received years ago: one which did me worlds of good until it was thoughtlessly undone; the other which wasn’t truly an apology at all.

The event resulting in the annulled amends actually occurred  in my high school days: an incident which, in the scheme of a lifetime, was extremely minor, but which at age 15 caused me intense mortification. A classmate’s actions inadvertently resulted in my inappropriate discipline.

The classmate–I think her name was Leonie—sat near me during study hour each afternoon in the school cafeteria. On the day in question,  Leonie made several complaints to the study hall proctor, Mr. Iverson. Another student’s behavior—talking, teasing, flirting, laughing—was making it difficult for everyone to concentrate. I ignored the troublemaker, but she drove Leonie to distraction.  The third time Leonie complained, Mr. Iverson stomped back with her to our table.  But, having misunderstood, he grabbed me by the arm and frog-marched me to the front of the cafeteria, where he forced me to stand at attention for the rest of the hour.  Leonie attempted to tell Mr. Iverson that he’d gotten the wrong person, but he waved a hand in her face, commanding her to sit down and shut up.

The humiliation I felt was extreme.  I was that “good kid” who was never in trouble—and here I was, displayed before 200 of my classmates as a scofflaw.  And it was all Leonie’s fault.

She tried to speak to me as I grabbed my books when the bell rang, but I stormed furiously past her. The following morning, though, she managed to catch me and shove a paper into my hands: a written apology.  Worded very dramatically—we were teenage girls, after all!—it nevertheless did the job.  The next time I passed Leonie in line, we joined hands, all forgiven.  Although I rarely saw her after that, being in different classes, the effort Leonie had made to apologize left me with a warm glow.

Years later, as young adults, we met accidentally on the street.  We both recalled that old incident with rueful grins.  Then Leonie said the words that were, to me, like a sharp slap across the face:  “…and then I gave you that stupid note! I was such a little idiot.”

The apology that had meant so much to a distressed 15-year-old was now reduced to regret and ashes; to having been a worthless gesture made by a fool.

Perhaps my face revealed my feelings as I heard her annul her apology.  I only recall that she quickly ended our unplanned meeting and went on her way.  But I’ve never thought of Leonie again without an ironic twist of the lips.

The second apology—the apology that wasn’t—came to me in letter form, also,  decades after the events in question.  The woman who penned the apology had, in those pre-internet days, gone to some trouble to track me down and mail it to me, writing that she hoped she’d found the right person.

When we were both young, I’d been the victim of this woman’s intentional persecution: horrific bullying that went on for months.  Even belatedly, I was overwhelmed to have an apology…at least at first.

Her letter began well, saying that she now realized she’d behaved badly. She needed me to understand that she’d been young and immature, and desperately afraid of not looking “cool” in front of her clique of friends.  I, unfashionable, plain, and insecure, had been an easy target.  She hoped that  I could, would, forgive her.

I read this letter through multiple times, puzzled as to why I felt no relief upon reading it.  Finally, it became clear to me. Notably absent were the two vital words that would have made the letter an actual apology:  “I’m sorry.”   Nowhere in her letter were the words, “I’m sorry”, or “I apologize”; nor even the words, “I’m ashamed”.  This wasn’t, I realized, an attempt to make amends, but a pallid excuse embroidered with pale justifications. It was a request for absolution failing either an assumption of personal responsibility or penitence for the wrongs done, coupled with an unflattering, if accurate, assessment of my person in that era.

Crumpling the letter, I tossed it into the trash.  I never wrote back to her.

Now, though, I regret not having replied.  I should have responded, pointing out precisely what was missing from her ostensible apology.  I should have explained that, while I had long since forgiven her, I could neither forget her behavior nor absolve her misdeeds. It was incumbent upon her to find some way to repay the debt she owed, not to me, but to the universe, for her cruelty.

As I say, I sat this Reconciliation Day thinking of these two apologies: one annulled, one that wasn’t, while reminding myself that true reconciliation also mandates that one accept an extended olive branch.   In both situations, by withholding my responses—yes, even my disgusted responses—I failed, and a liability now sits upon my own shoulders.  That is the debt I myself must repay to the universe…perhaps on another Reconciliation Day.

If you liked this blog post, you might also enjoy “Forgiveness is Always an Option”.  It can be found in the archives posted on June 24, 2019.