Did anyone else nod and feel a twinge of shame when you read this? Don't let me be the only one! Do you have memories that go back years, or even decades, that can fill you with shame and remorse as if they just happened?
I could think of dozens of cringe-worthy events. One that bothered me for years was the time I said "Merry Christmas!" in my most cheerful holiday voice to our family doctor as I passed him on the sidewalk beside his office. He was a curmudgeonly man who shaved his arm pits because he thought it was hygienic, gave me a Tootsie Pop Drop after every appointment, and made his own cough syrup with codeine. The cough syrup was delicious, and Mom kept it in the medicine cabinet upstairs. I took a swig every now and then when I needed a special treat.
Doc only made one house call to our home, and that was when I was four and came down with German measles. I remember, through a fever haze, lying on my parents' bed while he examined me, and then the adults talking in quiet voices. I guess he was telling them he didn't think I was going to make it. I did.
He's also the only person I ever heard say, "Shut up" to my grandma, a story my mom told for years after. My grandma, although she had only a 9th-grade education, was a nurse, and she was his surgical nurse. One Saturday morning he was stitching up a cut on my forehead, and she was assisting him. I'd busted it open when the big, boy-style bike I was riding on a gravel road slid out from under me. Lots of blood with a head wound. Anyway, nobody even remembers what my grandma said as he was stitching me, only that he looked up and said, "Shut up, Clara." Nobody spoke to my grandma that way. I wanted to get up and slap the shit out of him, but I was already scared of him and he was poking me with a needle and thread, so I stayed still. I never forgave him for talking to her like that.
I also never forgave him for giving my dad valium when he went in with chest pains, which Doc diagnosed as stress. My dad died a month later of a heart attack at age 46. He'd been self-medicating the chest pains with Alka Seltzer.
But that's not why I was appalled that I said, "Merry Christmas" to Doc one snowy day outside his office when I was 10. No, it's because Doc's family was the only Jewish family in town. Everybody else -- and I mean everybody -- was either Catholic or some flavor of Protestant. You had to be one or the other. Unless you were one of the two town doctors.
After I said, "Merry Christmas," Doc just nodded and walked on by. I don't suppose he even gave a shit. I bet lots of people made that mistake, told him "Merry Christmas." I'll bet he had patients who sent him a Christmas card every year.
But when I was 10, that seemed like the rudest thing I could have said to him, and I was sure I was going to go to hell for it. I was mortified. I gave myself a mental slap up the side of the head every time I thought of it for years. How could I have been so stupid?
I could probably come up with a couple dozen more of these if you'd like to see me self-flagellate with words, but the specifics aren't really the point. It's so true that we sabotage our perfectly fine present with memories of things we said or did that we can't change, letting the past determine our feelings in the present even though we can't change a damn thing. For some reason it's awfully hard to forgive ourselves for some of the smallest transgressions.
Who's the hardest person for me to forgive? Me. I've let other people off the hook for the worst behavior. You wouldn't believe it -- although I'm trying to do that less often.
But forgive myself? Not a fucking chance.
I've been working on this though, along with a tendency to take the blame for other people's behavior when I'm hurt or angry for a good reason. There are so many ways to play that blame game from both sides. Not that I would have been offended if he'd wished me a Happy Hanukkah. And yet somehow it's all too easy to let something as innocent as saying "Merry Christmas" to the town's Jewish doctor become a huge faux pas worth writing about decades later.
What did you think of when you read the comic above? Did any particular memory pop right to the surface? Or have you figured out a way to scrub those things you can't go back and change from your mind?
Just so you know, saying "Merry Christmas" to Doc doesn't really bother me any more. I can remember the shame my 10-year-old self felt, but I don't hold her in contempt. I have other stories though -- some worse, some just as minor.
As I wrote this, the drama down the street at the drug dealer's house has been intense tonight. It's after 2:30 and woman has been screaming and honking her horn and blocking the street so nobody could leave for over an hour: "Give me my motherfuckin' money, point, blank, period" over and over and over. In the midst of it, a man was yelling at another woman to get in the motherfuckin' car. I think he was hitting her, because the other men tried to stop him from leaving with her, and she was screaming and crying. Blue moon? End of summer crazy shit? I don't know.
I want to see if Melvin is on his porch, but I don't want to walk out there. Not this night. I wish I'd gone out with friends instead of coming home early to make soup and play my guitar.
Tonight is the last night of NaBloPoMo. I haven't decided about September. Making a commitment to post something every day keeps me writing. What do you think?