As I get older, I have much more to look back on and feel guilty about. Yes, yes there’s no point in feeling guilty. I could go into what has made me like this, but who cares? When I can’t sleep, an army of misdeeds invades my consciousness: overtures of friendship I casually rejected, thoughtless criticisms, insensitivities.
A while back it occurred to me that I could right some of these wrongs. I decided to clear the decks of guilt. I began to call people I had offended in order to apologize. After the first three calls, I stopped. None of them remembered what I was so torn up about. They were baffled, incredulous and/or amused. Though that was a relief, I came to understand that I wasn’t so important after all. I might have been the hero (or villain) of my own life, but I sure wasn’t of anyone elses.
“Guilt Gems” is a story by John Updike that has stuck with me over the years. It concerns a father named Ferris who thinks back to the many times he has been cruel to his children. He describes a softball game in which he felt forced to tag his ten-year-old daughter and recalled “…she looked at him with a smile, a smile preserved as in amber by a childish wild plea on her face. She was out.”
One of my guilt gems is the time I tried to prevent my four-year-old daughter from calling me into her bedroom in the middle of the night. The routine was that she would wet her bed, then call me and I would get up, change her pajamas and put a dry pad over the wet spot. I was a single working mother, tired all the time, and it seemed reasonable that Sara take care of this herself. As I was tucking her into bed, I put a fresh pair of PJs and a pad at the foot of her bed and stroked her head as I explained that when I was a little girl, my mommy had me change clothes and use a dry pad whenever I wet the bed. First she looked shocked, then frowned and asked in a quavery voice, “But did she just come in one night and tell you she was never going to come into your room again?”
Sara has a small daughter of her own now and she’s collecting her own treasure chest of guilt gems. Unfortunately, and contrary to my other experiences, she remembers the night I came into her room quite vividly.
Sleep well, dear readers.