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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

It's Never Too Late to Apologize

In late October of 2003, at the age of 43, I spent a week at my computer writing down every single negative experience I could remember that had either happened to me or I had been involved in prior to the age of twenty. Whether it was fights in the schoolyard, abuse at the hands of my parents and teachers or the general mischief that young boys get caught up in, it all got written down – every last little detail. Consequently, I had a lot of what I like to call “reconnection experiences” (where the sudden release of a long-buried memory causes a sudden leap of understanding to occur). Needless to say, it was a pivotal week in my spiritual journey. Not only was I able to release all kinds of repressed pain that I never knew I had, but as each unexpected wave of tears came and went, I felt completely unburdened and absolved – as if an immense weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Mind you, there was one notable exception. In the case of a childhood friendship that had ended when I was ten, remembering the final days of that relationship brought so much unexpected sorrow, I found myself compelled to write the following letter:

November 10, 2003

Dear Lindsay,

I haven’t spoken to you or seen you since 1975 so I would first like to apologize for the sudden intrusion. I hope this letter finds you well. This is David [Mathew] Hart writing – your childhood friend from long ago. After all these years, I can honestly say that I have a good life and I am happy.

I have decided to send you a letter out of the blue like this as a result of some autobiographical writing I have been doing recently. A few weeks ago I was reflecting back on my childhood and when I touched upon the period of our friendship, an unexpected release of sorrow suddenly occurred that completely caught me off guard. Through my writing in general over the last month, I have unwittingly discovered many things about myself and my past that have surprised me. For the most part, I have discovered all sorts of repressed emotion due to my childhood relationships with my mother and father – I guess that shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. On the other hand, to find unresolved issues connected to my early friendships – I guess it was so long ago, everything from that period somehow managed to weave together into a complex tapestry of memory fragments and repressed emotion. Anyway, my intention is that by writing you this letter of explanation, it might help to complete the process I have unintentionally initiated.

Although I didn’t realize this until recently, a dysfunctional relationship with my parents psychologically harmed me as a child and as a result, by the time I moved to Toronto in 1971, I was already quite experienced when it came to defensively repressing my emotions. Between the ages of five and eight I had a father who was mostly absent, who would often return home and physically punish or threaten me for various accused wrongdoings. During that period in my young life I missed and needed my father and was angry as a result of his long absences. My method of expressing my immature feelings was to act out and otherwise behave badly in protest of my father’s lack of involvement in my life. The more my mother tried to correct and control my bad behavior, the more I acted out. And the more I acted out, the more often I would be punished by my father. I soon learned to repress the feelings of anger I felt for my father for abusing me and the similar feelings of anger I felt for my mother for reporting on my bad behavior (to my father). In the end, this cycle of repeated punishment by the very hand of the person I missed was the root cause of much of my own future anger and unhappiness as an adult. I have only just discovered all this through my writing and am now doing my best to deal with it.

As an adult, I learned from my mother that my father’s brother had committed suicide in 1965 and as a result, my father significantly changed, never again to be the same person. As I have only just realized, like I was doing at the same time as a child, my father chose to repress his feelings of guilt and anger associated with the death of his brother rather than seeking out professional help. For him, repression became the root cause of chronic marital problems, migraine headaches, angry emotional outbursts (and of course, the physical and emotional abuse that was inflicted on me). My parent’s marriage finally ended in divorce in 1980. My father died in 1989. All this said, my parent’s weren’t really as bad as this somewhat simplistic explanation leads you to believe. I have forgiven them for their shortcomings as parents. They did their best and I know that they both loved me. Many people suffer greater indignities at the hands of their parents. Up until I began writing about it, I never even considered myself as having been an abused child. Through the very process of examining a life under a microscope, it tends to amplify everything, making it all seem so much bigger and more devastating than it really is. Putting the whole repression thing into a more truthful perspective, I would have to describe it as a small bump on an otherwise long road. The human psyche is so sensitive and fragile; even small abuses if ignored, can mutate over time to become much bigger and more complex issues.

For reasons I never consciously understood, I kept all the letters you sent me between 1971 and 1975. I have moved more than ten times over the years and yet I have persisted in keeping them. I am not a collector nor am I a pack-rat but for some reason, your letters must have been very important to me. I have never felt compelled to look at them since the day I originally opened them, that is, until a few days ago. Back in 1971, I had difficulty replying to your letters. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I had a problem. My slowness in replying was obviously hurting you. You jokingly wrote that maybe your letters were not getting to me; that perhaps they were rerouted to a wrong address. You even suggested that perhaps I hated you. Of course, neither of these scenarios was true – I had received all of your letters. The truth was, as I now believe it to have been, that in order to move forward with a normal life in Canada, I subconsciously decided to let our friendship wither and die. I had already disconnected from Bennett [another chidhood friend]. By ending our friendship too, I was effectively terminating the last remaining connection to my childhood. My previous memories were a complicated mess of unresolved childhood pain and emotion. I was too young to understand and maturely deal with the anger I felt for my parents. My sole recourse was to do what I did – repress everything and move on as if it was all okay. The result was that our friendship became another innocent casualty in the wake of my dysfunction. Now here I am at 43, trying to repair several holes in that part of my soul that was once my childhood. As strange as it may seem, 32 years after the fact I am finally experiencing pain and sorrow from that period in my life. Because I kept your letters all these years, I must have somehow known that they would one day help me to release a part of my childhood pain.

About a week ago, before the idea for this letter ever occurred, I was writing about the time of our childhood friendship when I suddenly remembered I still had your letters. When I retrieved them from my cupboard, I hardly had them in my hand for a moment when I suddenly began to weep with a feeling of overwhelming sorrow. After a few moments, I decided to return to my computer to write about the surprising experience. Just as I was about to begin, I suddenly thought of the scene in “Dances with Wolves” when Kevin Kostner’s character rides away from the native encampment for what everyone knows will be the last time. As he leaves, his native friend shouts out from the cliff’s edge something like “Dances with Wolves, you are my brother and I will never forget you.” Whenever I watch that film, that scene always reduces me to a weeping fool. I never knew specifically why I reacted with such emotion until I was thinking about our friendship and the scene suddenly popped into my head. I have since come to believe that my emotional reaction to this scene has a lot to do with both you and Bennett and how I contributed to the end of our friendships.

Although everyone who has known me over the years would never have imagined this, I have been quietly doing my best to cope with feelings of deep-routed anger and unhappiness for decades. I am only now able to finally write about it and deal with it because I am in a very good place in my life. With thanks first and foremost to God, I have been blessed with a loving wife named Nola (we have been married for 18 years) and three wonderful daughters (Sarah who is 17, Emily, 15 and Kaylin, 5).

This letter is to thank you for your childhood friendship and all the letters you sent me after I moved away. It is also to thank you for being a friend of mine at a time in my life when I had otherwise been led to believe by my parents that I was unlovable. Finally, I would like to apologize for any harm my childhood actions may have caused you. I loved you Lindsay but I was emotionally damaged and didn’t know it.

I don’t know if you would find it interesting to recover a small piece of your childhood but in the off-chance that you would, I would like to offer to return your letters. They have been invaluable in helping me. Not that I know anything about your life, but perhaps there is some hidden magic in those letters for you too.

I also feel compelled to say that if this letter has made you feel uncomfortable, I will understand if you do not wish to respond. Our friendship was a long time ago and the feelings that I am suddenly experiencing are terribly delayed and anachronistic. I feel completely absolved because I have done my best to explain everything to you. If on the other hand you decide that you would like to reply, I would be thrilled to hear from you. I should first tell you that I changed my name to Mathew in 1985 – but that is another story and I’ve said enough.

I sincerely hope you are happy and well.

Best Regards,

Mathew
*****

In order to track down Lindsay's address, I was able to find some professional references on the internet that seemed likely to be his. Having no alternative at the time (I couldn't find him listed in the phone book), I labeled my letter "personal and confidential" and sent it off to the company where I thought he was working. As I dropped the letter in the mailbox, I felt a very real sense of freedom and liberation from the chains of my past. And I felt self-satisfied for having the courage to send the letter -- whether it would eventually end up in his hands or not.

One year later, in December of 2004, I was opening up a pile of mail one day when I happened across a Christmas card containing a lovely family portrait of Lindsay, his wife and their two children. Although there was no personalized note inside, it was a gesture that brought full closure to an otherwise painful chapter in my life.

For the continuing story of my life, please see this post. Thank you

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