Tag Archives: Guilt

Hard to Say I’m Sorry #nonfiction

I make no claims that what follows is a great piece of writing. It is, however, highly personal, and it’s something I’ve needed to say for longer than I care to think about.

Hard to Say I’m Sorry: an Open Letter to Someone I Miss

     As a doctor of American Literature, I am well-acquainted with the fact that most people don’t know much (or care to know) about Modernist poetry. But if I had to bet my paycheck that almost everyone had heard of at least one Modernist poem, I would wager on Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” In case you haven’t read it since high school, I hereby quote the final stanza, in which the speaker, having been presented with two possible paths, finally makes his choice.

          I shall be telling this with a sigh
          Somewhere ages and ages hence:
          Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
          I took the one less traveled by,
          And that has made all the difference.

     Once, during my Master’s program, I heard one of my professors say that he had always read “The Road Not Taken” as satirical. He had a hard time believing that a poet of Frost’s caliber would simplify to such a degree the difficulties in navigating life. After all, as we make most of our choices, we see not two paths but several, often looking much the same, the end never in sight. Try as we might to apply logic and foresight to our decisions, we often result to the mental equivalent of flipping a coin; “I’ve got to try something,” we say to ourselves, and we plunge ahead, hoping that we don’t sail over some cliff hidden in the foliage.

     Of course, some choices are more important than others. In the end, who really cares if you choose Taco Bell over Burger King on a given day? Does it really matter if you watch Movie A instead of TV Show B, especially in this age of Netflix instant access and DVRs? Possibly not. But some choices can literally change lives. I discovered that as I have discovered most things—through painful experience.

     Back when I was much younger—before fatherhood, before marriage, before graduate school and a truly adult life—I had to make a choice. I cannot get into specifics in a public forum, and so I am left with generalizations, half-descriptions, and facades. I hope that if the person I’m talking to ever reads this, she will recognize herself and understand what I’m saying. I have never been good at talking about my feelings, so if I lose my way, I apologize to you, reader, and especially to her for whom this is meant. She deserves better.

Here goes.

Dear ______,

     If you’ve found your way here, you probably feel like I’ve blindsided you. We haven’t spoken in many years, a situation for which I am solely to blame. I wish I could go back and talk to my younger self; I could avoid so many mistakes that way, including one of the worst—losing touch with you. I cannot, of course, turn back time or reach across the years and fix things. I can only apologize, and believe me, I know how much there is to be sorry for.

     We met at a tumultuous time in my life. I had experienced things that devastated me emotionally. After that, I made some dumb decisions about who to care for and trust; these people piled their own kinds of damage on top of what had already been done. I had been convinced that I was worthless, that I would never be happy, that at best I would not drive my car off a bridge. Some days, I hated getting out of bed, and I always teetered on the edge of grim mania, barely stopping myself from punching people in the face for the flimsiest of reasons.

     Then, on yet another gray day, I met you.

     We hit it off quickly. Something about the way you smiled made me feel warm, and for whatever reason, you seemed to smile at me a lot. We talked. We saw each other socially. Soon, in a moment of unbridled and spectacular surprise, we came together in a kiss that was as desperate as it was passionate. Perhaps you were looking for something, too. I don’t pretend to know. I only know that it happened, and that it shocked both of us, like something out of a movie. When we broke apart, we stared at each other for several weighty moments. Then you said, “Oops,” and I could add nothing more profound. It wasn’t supposed to happen. We didn’t mean for it to. But it had happened, and we would have to deal with it.

     We embarked upon a relationship. Your family didn’t like me (and in this, they were not alone); I was the very definition of “damaged goods.” You could have done better. But for us, it worked, at least for a while. I remember that you ended it once, knowing that things were too complicated, that the timing wasn’t right. I accepted your decision with disappointment, but also with understanding. After all, I wouldn’t have wanted to be with me at that time in my life, and I wanted you to be happy. So I watched you walk away. If I recall, I went out with one of my best friends and got drunk and pretended that I was fine.

     But I was miserable. I felt a roaring inside me, a howling emptiness that you had begun to fill, and while I was willing to let you go, I didn’t want to. I wanted to call, to drive around until I found you, to beg you to come back. I did none of those things; I was strong enough for that, at least. But I missed you. And the really odd part? This separation only lasted a few days.

     Because you did come back. You told me that you had made a mistake, that you knew the problems and the risks of loving me and that you didn’t care. And even though I knew I was too unstable to give you what you deserved, I weakened, because I loved you and wanted to be with you so badly. So we started up again.

     But in the end, you can’t run away from your problems. I was too broken for anybody to fix. Only time and a lot of self-analysis would do that. My guilt over some things I’d done and my desire to be a better person in the future led me to break things off. I’m here to tell you that I didn’t want to do it. Walking away from you was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, and that’s saying a lot, especially now that I’m forty years old and have been through two divorces, family deaths, long separations from friends and loved ones. But I did it, because I knew that I had a lot of work to do on myself and that you deserved better than I could give. I simply could not ask you to wait until I got myself together.

     But because I was afraid, I handled things wrong. I let the situation drag out over a period of weeks in which you wondered what you had done wrong, why I was holding myself at a distance, when things would go back to normal. I tried to tell you the truth many times, but every time I opened my mouth, the words would fail me. The prospect of losing you scared me, and I have never frightened easily. By the time I finally told you that I would need time, that there were things I’d have to do in order to live with myself and be worthy of anyone’s love, I had hurt you. You were very understanding, but any amount of pain I might have caused is unacceptable.

     For my poor handling of our relationship and its conclusion, I apologize, from the bottom of my heart. Everything negative that happened was my fault. I tried to be a good person, but you know what they say about good intentions and the road to hell. I truly loved our time together, and if circumstances had been different, I would never have done what I did.

     For my silence in the years since, I also apologize. Of course, I don’t know if you even wanted to speak to me; I just know that I wanted to speak to you. But I was ashamed, and I was both hopeful and afraid that you’d moved on. So for any moment, no matter how fleeting, that I left you sitting near a silent telephone, I’m sorry.

     I’m with my soulmate now, someone who loves me both for what I am and for what I’m not. We’re deliriously happy, something I never thought possible. I would not give that up for the world. I’m trying to be the best father I can be. I’m still trying to be the kind of man I can admire.

     But my healing started with you. Your love showed me that I wasn’t worthless, that happiness was possible. For that, I can never repay you. The point I’m trying to make here is that my feelings for you were real. They still are; for me, that kind of love never goes away. No matter the circumstances, I’ll always be here for you. And even in your absence, you’ve always been important to me.

     I know you’ve moved on. You’ve got a family of your own now, a life, a career. You seem happy, from what I’ve heard. And no one could be happier for you than I am. For any part I might have played in delaying that happiness, I’m sorry.

     I’ve hoped to say all this to you personally, but I can’t seem to get in contact. I’ve thought about this, and I’ve come up with three possible reasons why you don’t want to talk to me. 1) You still love me, even after all this time, and fear what might happen to your life if I come back into it. 2) You’ve realized you never really loved me at all and simply don’t care if you ever talk to me again. 3) Your own feelings (or lack thereof) notwithstanding, you’re afraid that I have some kind of agenda, that I will make trouble for you.

     But I’m not egotistical enough to think that you still love me, at least to the extent that you, as an older and wiser person, couldn’t control yourself around me. I don’t think you’d run and leap into my arms, consequences be damned. So I’m crossing out #1. As for #2, I hope it isn’t true. But if it is, I wouldn’t blame you. I can only repeat that my feelings have always been genuine, and that I’d like to be in your life in whatever capacity you’d allow. In terms of #3, I’m not the guy I used to be. I’ve grown up. I’m not selfish enough to cause you problems. I’m no longer confused about who I am or what I can offer. Know that I would never hurt you or the people you care about.

     What I’m trying to say is that I miss you, and I’d like to be your friend. I’d like to introduce you to my wife; I think you’d like her. I’d like to tell you about my life and how you’ve affected it. It’s a pretty good story.

     But you have more than earned the right to say no. If you don’t want me in your life, I don’t blame you. I will only say that I will always be here. If you ever need or want anything, call or write me. If it’s within my power to give it, I will. In the meantime, just know that I’m sorry for the way I mishandled things, and that I have thought of you often over the years, always fondly.

     Saying this has been hard. Thinking about your potential silence is harder. But I made this particular bed, and I’ll lie in it as long as I have to.

     I hope this finds you and yours well.



Belated Victims–Original Nonfiction #nonfiction #writing

Belated Victims: Living and Dying after the Storm

      Her name was not Michelle, but that’s what I’ll call her.

     On the surface, she wasn’t much different from any other freshman English student. She wrote mostly middle-of-the-road essays and got mostly middle-of-the-road grades—usually in the low B or C range. She seldom spoke unless directly called upon. She even sat in the middle of the classroom—not a front-row overachiever or a back-row misanthrope, just a student who wanted what an education might bring into her life. She probably wanted a job she could live with and perhaps love, money, a place in the world.

     This is how I remember Michelle, the picture that formed in the sixteen weeks or so in which I saw her three times a week, the duration of a freshman-year course that she would complete only months before Hurricane Katrina killed her. These memories might be faulty, mashed together with images of a thousand other students I’ve seen since then. Or perhaps I’m creating a person that never was, reacting to my own guilt over not paying more attention to her in life.

     But faulty or not, this is the image that I carry, the one that I can share.


     In August 2005, I was living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and finishing my doctoral dissertation. I was working as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College, and while much of what I experienced there frustrated me, I found the student population fascinating. Having only taught at universities, I had become accustomed to dealing with traditional students, many of whom were children of privilege. But at BRCC, I encountered over-25 students, budding small business owners, and people from the lower tax brackets. At the beginning of every semester, my classroom filled up with single mothers and middle-aged men working two jobs and youngsters whose parents could not afford LSU or Southern.

     And after Hurricane Katrina near-missed New Orleans and devastated the gulf coast, after the levees broke and the streets flooded and the city became a powerless third-world town, after the debacles at the Superdome and the Convention Center, after the evacuation and dispersion of the Crescent City’s poor and largely African-American populace began to resemble a new diaspora, after the universities and colleges that could still operate began to announce the creation of emergency courses for evacuees and the hiring of displaced educators, I went to work one day and met Michelle.

     I didn’t know then that she had lived in the lower parishes. I didn’t know about her home life or her relationship to her extended family. It isn’t the kind of thing that comes up in class, at least not often, and it certainly isn’t the kind of thing you ask about without cause. I only knew her name, and with all my other students to remember, it would take a few weeks for me to associate the name in my grade book with the quiet young woman who sat in the middle of class.

     More wasted time? No, it was only the natural progression of any semester, the adjustment period in which you learn who the students are and how badly they really want to be there. But in retrospect, it’s easy to wonder what each moment might have cost. Michelle’s life was already rushing toward disaster, as if someone had turned over an hourglass, one day in her life for each grain of sand, the pull of her destruction as inevitable as gravity.


     That isn’t completely true, of course. Michelle’s death was no more certain that the eventual appearance of a storm like Katrina, or its growth to Category 5 strength out over the Gulf, or its losing momentum just before making landfall along the Louisiana-Mississippi coast. But Michelle’s death was seeded decades before her birth, planted by governmental neglect, fertilized by Louisiana citizens’ indifference, nourished by an “it will never happen here” attitude that itself grew in power each time a storm veered east into Mississippi or west into Texas. Michelle’s death became more certain every time the levees held.

     You can blame Katrina on global warming, God, or plain old bad luck. You can blame people’s decisions to stay on stubbornness or on Mayor Ray Nagin or, more likely, on a collision of political, historical, and socioeconomic factors. You can blame the federal government’s slow response on George W. Bush’s general incompetence, on the rich’s laissez-faire privilege, on FEMA. But the levees—well, we’re all responsible for them. Whenever we failed to demand levee reconstruction or allowed the passing of one storm to lull us into believing New Orleans would always be safe, we hastened the day when Lake Ponchartrain would spill into the streets and carry away all our assumptions. And because we own the levees, we own Michelle’s death, and others like hers.


     The last time I saw Michelle, I hurt her feelings. It was the day of our final exam. She wrote her in-class essay quietly, as she had done everything all semester. When she brought her exam to my desk, she handed it to me. I took it and smiled.

     “Have a good break,” I said.

     Instead of leaving, she unzipped her backpack and pulled out a package wrapped in Christmas paper. She held it out to me.

     “This is for you,” she said.

     This kind of thing happens occasionally, and the moment is always awkward. Knowing that a student actually appreciates you warms your heart, even as the mind screams Danger! Danger! You want to listen to your heart, but accepting gifts from students is simply unethical. Even the appearance of favoritism can lead to appeals, even lawsuits. So being offered a gift in front of a classroom full of students, especially during a final exam, felt incredibly dangerous, as if someone had opened the door and tossed a cobra into the room.

     I didn’t take the package. I said, “I appreciate the gesture, more than you know. But I’m not allowed to accept gifts from students. I hope you understand.”

     For a moment, she just stared at me, the present still held out, hanging between us like a broken promise. Then she half-smiled, nodded, and put the gift back in her bag.

     “Merry Christmas,” I said, as cheerfully as I could.

     “You too,” she replied, not unkindly, and then she walked out the door without looking back.

     The next time I saw her face, it was on the news.


     In the spring of 2006, my courseload included a couple of argument-based composition classes. As an exercise in social awareness and practical argument, I required my students to participate in online discussions of current events. The responses I got from these Baton Rouge citizens about New Orleans evacuees were often disturbing. In spirit, they sounded like this:

     “These people are living in new trailers rent-free. Seems like they’re making out all right.”

     Or this:

     “When are they going to get jobs and stop expecting the government to take care of them?”

     Or this:

     “They could solve their own problems and get their homes back if they just worked hard enough.”

     “These people,” “they,” “them”—my students were using the language of exclusion. Worse yet, they were stereotyping, assuming facts not in evidence, oversimplifying, overgeneralizing—everything I was trying to teach them not to do. And though I tried to present them with alternative points of view, the flavor of the discussion remained, for the duration of that semester, largely the same. Some people, who otherwise seemed rational and empathetic, disdained the victims of Katrina and wished them gone from the city. If one person refused to work, these students thought, then all evacuees were lazy, sorry parasites on the body of hard-working America. Never mind that countless evacuees worked hard and that others might have good reason for not working. Many people who had not seen Katrina blow their lives away were sitting in self-righteous judgment of those who had.

     Luckily for the country, this kind of thought seemed to be seated in a vocal but comparatively small minority. But some people went far beyond words.


     One night my wife and I were half-listening to the local evening news when I heard the anchor mention Michelle’s name. Snapping to attention, I turned up the volume and then fell back against the couch, my stomach in knots. As the newscaster explained what had happened, I recalled every careless word that those students had written. I wondered how they would feel now, if they knew what I knew.

     Michelle had been living with relatives in the Baton Rouge area ever since Katrina had washed away her home. I don’t know her exact circumstances, but I witnessed first-hand how the shock of losing everything you ever had weighed on people. Some sat motionless, shell-shocked, unable to muster the motivation to pick up the pieces. Why build a life when wind can so easily knock it down? Others fell into a deep depression. Others became violently angry. Nearly everyone, even those who immediately went back to work, felt the tension.

     Like many displaced Katrina victims, who often had to squeeze over a dozen people into a few rooms, Michelle and her family had been living with relatives. One evening, Michelle got into a heated argument with two of her cousins. Emotions led to words; the words led to violence. Michelle’s own relatives stabbed her multiple times. According to the news, she died right there on the ground. She never had a chance.

     As I listened to the story and remembered the girl who had brought me a Christmas present, I had to remind myself to breathe.


     We bought a sympathy card for Michelle’s mother, but I never sent it. In spite of being a writer and a teacher of writing and literature, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Everything sounded trite and hollow. Was I supposed to tell her that I only knew her daughter long enough to turn down a thoughtful gift? Could I express hope in the justice system when the killers shared her blood? After Katrina and her daughter’s murder, should I appeal to her faith in a God she might not even believe in anymore? And somehow, “I’m sorry for your loss” seemed inadequate.

     Besides, there was too much to be sorry for: Michelle’s death, my failure to remember her better, the levees and the politicians who always deprioritized them, the citizens who never demanded more, the federal government’s creeping response, Mike Brown, the laughably-named FEMA. For what, or whom, should I apologize?

     I’ll always believe that Michelle’s was a hurricane-related death. The storm destroyed her home and dropped her in the maw of familial and economic tensions exacerbated by uncertain futures and cramped living quarters. When she, and far too many others, needed strong, quick solutions, too many agencies pointed their fingers at someone else. “Let them take care of this; it isn’t our job.” Too many private citizens failed to look past the ends of their own noses.

     I hope we can all see farther now.