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Friday, May 08, 2009

Apologizing for your life

"I'm sorry."

If she says it once, she says it at least six times during any conversation we're having.

In fact, she usually begins every conversation with those words.

"Elizabeth?" the ancient voice comes on the phone. "I'm sorry to bother you."

"Please," I say, "don't apologize. How are you?"

Or, when she comes into my office, most every week, "Thank you for seeing me. I'm so sorry to be such a bother to you."

"Welcome," I say, "please don't apologize. Come in."

My gentle admonitions never work. She always apologizes.

In fact, once, when she came into my office, she accidentally bumped into a chair. "Oh, I'm sorry, she said.


She turned 80 this year. Her husband died several years ago. Her daughter lives in another state. "She's very busy," she says, with a mixture of sadness and pride. "Has a Veeeery Important job. She and her husband are always traveling. She lives a very important, very busy life."

"When was the last time you saw her?" I ask.

"Oh, two months ago," adding quickly, "but she's coming again next month. Has the whole visit planned. We're going to take a ride to The Shore. We'll have lunch. Do a little shopping."

"That sounds like great fun," I respond, cheerily.

"Yes," she says, unconvincingly, looking at the wall, careful not to make eye contact.

"She's always prepared. Always scheduled," she laughs, adding, "So unlike her mother."

"More like her father?" I ask.

"Oh, she's daddy's little girl. Always was. Always will be. . . .even after all these long years." She sighs, "Did I tell you that he died 10 years ago?"

"Yes," I say softly. A heavy silence comes between us. "You miss him terribly, don't you?"

"Yes," she says softly, nodding her head and adding, even softer, "Yes." I'm aware that her mind has drifted to a place Far, Far Away, to a happier time and place.

Suddenly, she returns to the room and says, predictably, "I'm sorry."

There is no doubt that she is lonely and sad, but more recently, these things have fed her anxiety, which has been feasting on her depressive state.

She has had several admissions to the ER of late. Sometimes, it's 'heart palpitations'. Another time, she got dizzy and fell, badly bumping her head.

The time before last, she went because she had what she said was "a large amount" of rectal bleeding. She got scared and called The Squad who took her to the hospital. Turns out, it was hemorrhoids. I'm sure she was taken to the hospital, not so much for the bleeding, but because she must have been in quite a state.

"I was so embarrassed," she says. "What must they think of me? Did I tell you that I wrote a long letter to The Squad, thanking them and apologizing for the mess I made?"

"Why did you apologize?" I ask. "You were scared. I would be, too. Bleeding from anywhere is always a serious concern. Calling The Squad was perfectly normal."

"For hemorrhoids?" she asks, admonishing me. "How ridiculous! Even my own daughter said so. 'Mother!' she said, 'How could you?' I was mortified. She was mortified. She's just like her father."

"That never would have happened when I was younger. I was always so level headed," she laughs nervously. "Well, with a husband like mine, you couldn't afford to be anything but. He never tolerated any foolishness."

"Just like your daughter," I say, softly.

"Yes," she says, "I'm afraid the apple didn't fall far from that branch of the tree." She looks at the wall again and says, sadly, "She didn't come to visit me for several months after that."

She allowed a deep sigh and said, "She's a lot more like her father than either of us cares to admit."

Again, the heavy silence comes into the room like a rude interruption. When she shoos it out the door, she looks at me, startled and says, "I'm sorry."

"Can I ask you something?" I ask, gently, aware that I am about to take our conversation to a deeper place. I've tried to get her there before, gently pressing against the sore spot, trying to get to the source of the inflammation or bruise.

"Why do you always apologize?"

She laughs nervously. "Oh, I don't know."

"I think you do," I say, continuing to gently press.

Another gentle peal of nervous laughter fills the space between us. She looks at the wall for a time, then looks back at me. I say nothing. She looks back at the wall again. When she returns, she looks past the silence between us and into my eyes.

Now she's fumbling into the pocket of her blouse and pulls out an old used tissue which she uses to dab a tear that hasn't yet formed in her eye.

She laughs nervously again, catching herself. "I was just going to say . . ."

"Let me guess," I interject, smiling, "I'm sorry?"

We both giggle like 6th grade school girls over a silly joke.

She dabs her dry eyes again with the tissue, now as balled up and as shredded as the emotions sitting right behind her tearless eyes, weighing heavily on her heart.

She sighs deeply again, gains her composure and says, slowly, softly, "It's all so useless. So foolish."

"What is?" I ask. What is useless? What is so foolish?"

"THIS!" she says, as if there is something Very Large in the room, something So Obvious that she's astonished I don't see it for myself."

"This, what?" I ask, anyway.

"THIS OLD LADY!" she says loudly so I'm sure to notice. Again, she dabs her tearless eyes. "It's such a cruel trick, this life. The 'Golden Years'! Isn't that what they call it? Ha! Well, whatever 'gold' was once there is now tarnish and rusting. Nobody wants it. Who would?"

Her voice cracks with emotion as she continues, "I'm useless. No husband. No children. No life. What's the use?"

She takes a deep breath and continues, "There was a psalm you read during Holy Week . . . what were the words? . . . Oh, yes. 'I'm as useless as a broken pot.' (Psalm 31:12) That's it. That's my life."

A heavy silence comes between us again. I can feel my heart breaking for her sadness and loneliness.

"How can God be so cruel? Why would God let us live so long, only to be so useless? I mean, what's the point of it all?" she demands, angry now.

It's actually a good and hopeful thing to see it. I find myself feeling oddly, curiously hopeful. She doesn't know it, and a that moment, I didn't fully grasp it, but for once, she's given me something I think I can work with.

I reach for my BCP, which I always keep by the side of my chair, and flip to find Psalm 31. While I do that, I ask her, "Did you read the rest of the Psalm?"

She looks confused and shakes her head 'no'.

I find the psalm, look at her and ask, "May I?" She nods her consent.

"You quoted verse 12, this is verse 14 and part of verse 15: "But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, 'You are my God.' My times are in your hands;'

"Here's verse 16 and part of verse 17: 'Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love. Let me not be put to shame, O LORD, for I have cried out to you;' And, it ends with these words:

'Love the LORD, all the saints! The LORD preserves the faithful, but the proud God pays back in full. Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD'."

I look up and into her eyes which are now filled with expectancy. "You see, what you are feeling is not something foreign or odd. These are feelings which many people, over centuries have felt. You are not alone. In fact, I understand feeling 'like a broken pot.' I, too, have cried out to God in my despair."

She dabbed at her eyes again, "How did you make it through?" Her question was earnest. Honest. She really wanted to know.

"Well," I began, "the short answer is 'my faith,' just like the psalm. But, that's only half the story. The rest of the story is that the only way I've ever been able to find faith is in community. In relationship with a group of other people who have been where I've been and felt what I've felt and, somehow, made it through. They give me hope."

"Hope?" she asks, astonished. "How do you find 'hope' in the midst of a bunch of losers? Where's the motivation in that?"

I smile as a memory floods back and fills my heart with warmth. "Once," I say, "a long time ago, when I was at one of my lowest points, someone said these words to me. She said, 'I know that you don't believe in this right now, but I believe in God and I believe in you. I know it's hard for you to believe, but in those moments, forget about whether or not you can believe. Just believe in my belief'."

A flash of understanding appeared in her ancient, weary eyes. I tried to speak directly to that understanding.

"I believe in God and I believe in you," I say to her. "I know it's hard for you to believe, but in those moments, forget about whether or not you can believe. Just believe in my belief."

And suddenly, the flash of understanding moved like a lightening bolt through her body and struck a place in her heart, opening up a floodgate of tears which flowed from her eyes with such force that it caught her by surprise.

She opened her mouth but didn't make a sound. Her face was contorted in a pain so deep, so severe that it took her breath away. It was the loudest, longest silent scream I've ever heard.

She was crying for life. Her own life - the one she had had, the one she had now, the one she wanted but didn't know how to have.

She was crying for 'things done and left undone.' She was crying for gifts she had used and the ones she had ignored. She was crying for the time she had spent and the time she had left. She was crying for the sheer luxury of crying. She was crying, now, shamelessly and fearlessly and boldly and without apology.

Finally, she gasped for air and opened her arms, which I understood as an invitation to an embrace. I found myself weeping with her as I held her and she held me and together we cried and cried and cried and cried. We took turns comforting each other.

"Thank you," she said in a hoarse whisper when she was done, "Thank you. It's been so long since I had a good cry. Even longer since anyone believed in me."

"Let me guess - about 10 years?"

She smiled and said, "Actually, much longer than that. Probably, since I was a child. My mother believed in me when I couldn't believe in myself. I think," she stammered, "I think I've been so busy believing in my husband and believing in my daughter, that I've forgotten how to believe in myself . . .or, God."

We were quiet for another long while, but this time the silence was good. Full, not empty. Hopeful, not despairing. Holy, not heavy.

"Thank you," she said again. "I don't know, yet, what any of this means, but I feel much better. I feel . . .I feel . . .,"

She searched out my window for words and then suddenly she sat up in her chair, surprised. "Hopeful," she said. I feel HOPE." She laughed, "I haven't felt that in a long, long time. At least, I think that's what Hope feels like."

"I think you well may be right," I said, adding "I know one thing it's not."

"What's that?"

"It sure isn't an apology," I laughed. Then, she laughed, dabbing away the new tears that fell from her eyes.

They were big, fat tears, no doubt swollen by so many years of being held back, and fell in two big drops down her wrinkled cheeks.

"You don't have to explain or apologize for your life," I said. "You only have to live it."

"Right," she said, adding slyly, "I'm sorry." A wicked little giggle escaped between her tears. "It's just that I've been apologizing for so long, it's going to take a while to change that."

"I understand," I chuckled with her. "Just keep working at it. Before you know it, you'll have it down pat."

We parted after a few more minutes and I was aware that the room felt lighter than it had in all the times it ever had after one of our conversations.

I hadn't heard from her in a few days, so I called her from my car yesterday afternoon as I drove the long drive in the rain to my little bay side sanctuary .

She was in a bit of a rush. "I'm going to the matinee with a friend," she said, adding, "I'm sorry to cut you off, but I don't want to be late."

And then, she giggled. Like a naughty school girl, she giggled a wicked little giggle.

"No, really. I AM sorry not to have a chance to talk with you. But, I'm not sorry for my life. Now, understand me: it wouldn't be so bad if God decided to call me home, sooner rather than later, but at least, when I got there, I would be smiling. I would be glad for my life - with only a few apologies to offer."

I'm a good Episcopalian. I know the Sacred Scripture, but I'm sorry, I can't recite chapter and verse for all of the scriptures. However, I can tell you where most anything is in the Book of Common Prayer.

I could hear the words of the Psalmist in my ear. "Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD."

Being a good Episcopalian, I can also quote poetry. I consider them 'modern psalms'. This poem by Mary Oliver is written on the inside of my heart.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I'll have to remember to write it down and send it to my friend - without explanation or apology.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Elizabeth.This is so touching, so real. You are so incredibly gifted in counseling. You gave this woman so very much, her life back. The truth reverberates through it. Thank you.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Oh, wow, this hits home.

I have a longtime friend who is having to deal with a medical problem and it is very hard on her. I know she is feeling like an old broken pot herself. Like your woman in the story, "I'm sorry" flies out of her mouth a lot. (However, I will point out that native midwesterners probably also say "I'm sorry" and "beg pardon" and "excuse me" more than folks on either coast. We are just born naturally guilty, LOL)...

But I have been trying to get my friend to at least TELL me what she needs to feel supported. She's depressed, anxious, and absolutely UNABLE to ask for herself. The depression makes her unwilling to take a single step FOR herself. The anxiety bouts absolutely paralyze her. It's a vicious circle. But I go, "Just tell me ONE thing you'd like me to do for you that would help you feel better about all this." She can't. Just, "I'm sorry."

She's been to two docs and they are pretty much in agreement about her depression/anxiety meds, even in light of her recent new medical condition. But she just seems absolutely paralyzed to do one single thing asked of her for her own mental health, whether it's her friends, her priest, her counselor, or her psychiatrist. If only she could see her own worth. Sigh.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, 'feather'. Not so much gifted as one old broken pot who can recognize it in another. And, because God loved me first.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - I don't think she can tells you what she needs to feel supported. She needs community what we all do when we're sad and lonely. Community. Relationships. Affirmation. Love. Hope.

Try pushing the conversation to a point where she's better able to hear what you have to say. Call me if you need to talk this through.

ROBERTA said...

such a fabulously hopeful story! thank you.

Utah Savage said...

Well, this made me cry. And I too am a knee jerk apologist. I've been apologizing for my very existence since I fist learned to talk. One of the reasons I'm such a recluse is that whenever I'm around other people I feel I must be doing something annoying because when did I ever not?

Kathryn said...

Thank you for being the priest you are, and for allowing us to see all that grace in action through you...
It really is an inspiration.

Jim said...


In another way, as it relates to the Anglican experiment, I have been thinking and writing about community too. It is hard and perilous. It is also all we have among us.


Funny! The security word is 'dogim' and we humans can only I think be community with each other, cats and dogs!

Kay & Sarah said...

Wow!! You may be an "old broken pot" recognizing another but that was an amazing break through with that lady. I am so glad she has you.

Sara said...

Thanks Rev. Eliz., I really hadn't planned on starting my day with tears! This isn't the first time I've had to call my mother after reading one of your posts.

susankay said...

Elizabeth -- Thank you very much.

I, too, say "I'm sorry" a lot. Mine, I think, stems from a relationship from a dying husband who did not want to be alone and at some level wanted me to die too. I couldn't/wouldn't do that for him so I began to apologize for almost every thing else.

I assume he feels differently now so perhaps I should work on not being inappropriately apologetic.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Roberta - you are most welcome.

Utah - There's something Annie Lamont has written about apologizing for your life that I've just recently remembered. I think it's from her book, "Operating Instructions." I'll have to look it up when I get home.

Kathryn - I confess that my 'hidden agenda' is to educate those folk who think they know what a priest does, but really have no idea. It's really not their fault. Priests really can't tell half of what they do because it's, well, confidential. To tell the truth, I changed a few of the 'facts' so as to conceal her true identity. She's not an active parishioner - more a C&E Christian, so most of the folks from my congregation who read this wouldn't recognize her by what I've written. The other piece, of course, is that writing is part of what keeps me sane.

Jim - relationships in community is the heart and soul of Church.

Two Aunties - I'm so glad God brings me people like this woman so that I can learn how to be a better pastor.

Sara - I'm glad this prompted you to call your mother. This is a good thing.

Susankay - I do believe that your husband has perfect knowledge now. He knows that you have nothing to apologize for to anyone.

All y'all - Call your mothers. I know. Call her anyway. While you still can.

Caminante said...

I haven't even been able to finish reading this because of my tears for that woman. Ay. This puts into perspective the silliness of whatever the ACC might do. Pastoral presence and ministry will go on whether or not we are still part of the Anglican Communion.

Now, to wipe my eyes and read past your holding this soul in your embrace....

Jim said...

"Jim - relationships in community is the heart and soul of Church. "

Yup, and not institutions. Something the ABp of Canterbury seems unable to understand....


The security word is bermula. Can I go there?

June Butler said...

Beautiful story, beautifully told, Elizabeth.

"You don't have to explain or apologize for your life," I said. "You only have to live it."

Lovely words and true for us all. You did good, my friend.