Saying "I'm Sorry" to Phyllis
The events of Sept. 11 open up a connection to a past wrong
By Rabbi Elyse Winick
Weíre all familiar with the notion that you canít go home again and itís true. We can revisit the past in our memories, but those memories are enduring, permanent and unchangeable. You canít change the past.
The past has been on my mind a lot these days. I grew up in New York and lived there for 23 of my 35 years. And as you may have heard, you can take someone out of New York, but you can never take New York out of them. Even from a distance of some 200 miles, I have felt the attacks on New York City as a shadow on my soul.
My father worked for the New York State Department of Labor for 33 years (yes, it is possible to work in one place and feel satisfaction for that long). From the time it opened, until his retirement in 1983, his office was on the 73rd floor of Two World Trade Center. We took two elevators to get to his office, one to a concourse on the 44th floor, where there was also a cafeteria and a second one from 44 to 73.
I can still feel the pit in my stomach as the elevators rushed from the ground floor to the 44th floor in a matter of moments. I remember watching the first parade of Tall Ships in 1976 from the narrow window of his office. I remember sorting and filing papers and news clippings on school vacations when I accompanied him to work.
I remember family celebrations at the Windows on the World restaurant. I remember shopping in the stores in the grand lobby shared by both towers. I remember feeling so small, diminished by the buildings themselves as well as by all the grown ups hustling past.
Like so many of you, I lost a piece of myself on September 11.
Reconnecting with old friends
Trying to reclaim some pieces of a past that felt shattered in the days following the attacks, I clicked on the website for my high schoolís alumni association and "signed" its guestbook. I heard from old friends and classmates, some of whom had narrowly escaped the Towersí collapse, others whom had lost family and friends and still others who grieved the attack on their city, no matter where they live.
And I heard from the girl who sat next to me in third grade. Weíll call her Phyllis.
Phyllis and I came from different worlds. She was one of the few non-Jews in our class. Her mother stayed at home and was an active member of the PTA, while my mother worked outside the home. I saw my first Christmas tree at her house and she tried to teach me to sing "O Tanenbaum." We played together regularly.
As a third grader I had an annoying compulsion to cuff her on the shoulder with a playful punch, saying, "Hey, Pal!" She hated it. And I could not stop myself. I did it one morning in class as we sat at our desks and she started to cry. I can still picture the teacher leaning forward at her desk to reprimand me. I was devastated because I knew I had upset my friend, I had gotten in trouble with the teacher and still I didnít know how to keep myself from doing this silly thing which had only the friendliest of intent. Phyllisí parents stopped me in the hall to tell me to leave her alone. The teacher changed her seat. I was consumed by guilt and I didnít know what to do.
At the end of third grade Phyllis transferred to a Catholic school (I was sure that was my fault too). On the first Yom Kippur in the next year, I remember asking my parents if God would forgive me for punching Phyllis, since I hadnít meant to hurt her, though I never got to say more than "Iím sorry." They assured me that I was forgiven.
After 27 years, a second chance
Each year for 27 years, when I have reviewed the ways I have missed the mark in the year just passed, I have harbored a dull ache over that episode and the fact that I never felt free of my eight-year-oldís guilt. Itís amazing what things stay with you.
Suddenly, four days after Yom Kippur, I sat before my computer with my jaw at my feet. A casual and friendly hello from Phyllis looked me straight in the eye. The strains of the Yom Kippur liturgy had not even faded from my mind yet and I was overwhelmed with the sense that I was being given a second chance.
"I donít know if you remember me," it began, "we used to play together at P.S. 52." I took a deep breath and began to type. "Iím so glad to hear from you," I wrote. "Of course I remember you." And I retold the story which had ached inside me for 27 years, silly though it may have been. I held my breath for 48 hours until I could check for her response.
"Wow," she wrote, "I donít remember that at all, but if it actually helps, I forgive you." And in an instant, it all went away.
The wholeness borne of saying that we are sorry is not just to heal the person we have wronged. It is our way of becoming at one with ourselves as well. And though you canít change the past, itís clear to me that itís never, ever too late to say youíre sorry.
We have discovered a great deal in the month since the tragic attacks on our country. We have found strength in places we never knew it existed. We have found appreciation for unsung heroes. We have found what evil looks like and we know that we will not be brought down. We have found each other. Though we cannot change the past, the past can still change us and we can, in turn, transform the future. And we will.