Making Amends: Ringing the Bells That Still Can Ring

Amends, he wrote. Please let me make amends to you. My program requires it. The 9th step says that we must make direct amends to people we have harmed except where to do so would injure them or others.

I didn’t understand, though later I would spend hours upon hours googling AA sites learning all I could about steps, colored chips, acceptance and giving oneself over to one’s higher power.

When he wrote that he had become an alcoholic, that he had never married, never had a family, never been as successful as he had hoped he might be, I felt my heart start to burn. When he wrote that he had been well on the way to becoming that alcoholic when we were together in college, I couldn’t take my eyes off the words as they appeared on the screen. It was as if they were written in a secret code I had seen my entire life but only now, in this instant, could I decipher.

Who knew from alcoholism at 18 in 1970? Who knew that it was possible for a sweet fun loving boy to be drinking and getting high to numb himself and to keep from feeling anything – including the intense love that I felt for him – that thin wiry boy with the shaggy brown hair, dancing blue eyes and enough charisma to fill an entire dining hall. Who knew that as he lay with me on my dorm room cot atop the comforter I had brought to college from my childhood bed that he would only remember fragments of my first time – this memory blown from his head along with so many others by years of drinking and getting high.

So he asked me if he could make amends and I said yes, not knowing about dry drunks and 13th stepping and the uncanny ability alcoholics have of lying to themselves. I’m present now, he wrote. I’m whole. I’m here. Tell me our story.

I can’t say why I assented, why I went back into my memory and wrote to him about my heartbreak and humiliation any more than I could say why I looked him up on the Internet in the first place and sent that first terse and tentative message. How are you these days?

I had not been prepared for his answer.

I have a picture of you, said the latest email. I will send it to you . I cringed at the prospect and had to brace myself before opening the file. I was shocked that he even had a picture of me. I had been an ugly girl and hadn’t let many photographs be taken. I was terrified to see that pathetic image again – the one I had worked so hard my entire adult life to transform.

When the email came, I shook as I opened the attachment then quickly turned away from the computer without looking. Slowly I worked up the courage to glance back at the screen and there, in an instant, saw before me the image of myself at 18 – the soft curly black hair framing a heart shaped face – the glowing white skin with pink cheeks, the deep black eyes and pink lips bowed into a tentative smile.

I wanted to embrace this young girl who hadn’t even realized what the doctors had done to her mother. Didn’t know it because back then in the 60’s who knew of addiction to prescription drugs, the kind the doctors kept writing for her after my father betrayed and abandonned her, the kind that numbed her and made her emotionally unavailable, unpredictable, and completely incapable of loving anyone while under the influence, especially her ugly, angry and difficult daughter.

So when I was 18, barely out of my unstable childhood, I went seeking a lover I could love with fierce desperation – one who couldn’t love me back.

All of those years, I’d seen my younger self as totally unlovable and unworthy of anyone’s affections, rejected by my first lover who eventually made his way into the beds of so many of the other girls in my dorm.

It wasn’t you, he wrote. It was me. I wasn’t capable of loving anyone at that time in my life. You were standing in the light and I was standing in the darkness.

Ah, I breathed, rereading his emails, holding myself tight and loving for the first time the girl in the photograph.

When I finally saw him in person, months later, after nearly forty years, he took both of my hands in his, looked me straight in the eye and said two words I had been wanting to hear from so many people my entire life.

I’m sorry.

That’s what he said. Followed by,

I’m sorry I hurt you.

In that instant, I felt something shift inside of me.

Leonard Cohen sings, “Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

It wasn’t until much later that I realized how hard that was for him — how much courage it took to reach out to me in this way. But he must have known the impact it would have on me and I will always be grateful to him for taking that step.

His simple but heartfelt apology opened up a tiny fissure in the thick defenses I had erected around my bruised and broken heart for nearly fifty years – a wall I had plastered with anger, and fortified with self righteousness and regret.

And with the sliver of light coming through the crack serving as my guide, I saw all of the possibilities for healing, love and forgiveness that could be mine.

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  1. there is a healing in this. I can feel you going back for that girl at 18, and I can see that the road back was paved with the amendment that your friend posted to your past. The change, the amends, the making it different and right. Thank you for going back for her. It helps me go back for me. And thank you for the reminder that we are healed in the wounds themselves, the cracks. Without them I don't know where my need is. So good, Marsha.

  2. Your writing style is wonderful, and I can imagine the turmoil you were both experiencing, the way you used that in your lives to find each other at a particular point in time. His life did not go well but your life did. His apology and what it meant to you was moving and a great reminder for all of us.

  3. When you look at that photo, I hope you can see what I now see, a truly beautiful young girl. Having known you in 1970, I never saw you the way you saw yourself. And I wish I had said something then. Maybe you wouldn't have heard the words, maybe they wouldn't have penetrated your hard shell but I should have said how much I envied your vivacious self and your brash attitude. I should have found a way to tell you what I saw. Your writing is incredible. You can touch a raw nerve and soothe it all in the same sentence. You are exceptionally gifted. Maybe the pain you went through bore the exquisite fruit of your talent.

  4. I love this post–thank you for your vulnerability.

    I posted about Leonard's concert in Portland about the same time–early December 2010. What an amazing poet.

    Glad I found your blog–

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