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I’m sorry. I’m writing to you today, not knowing where (or even if) you are living. I hope you are. I hope things turned out well for you, that you got clean, had a family of your own, sought help for your demons. I was just a child then, and I suppose I didn’t know any better. But I’ve been holding this apology in for a long, long time.

I remember when your parents borrowed my dad’s reel-to-reel cassette player. You had recorded a message for them from Vietnam, where you were fighting. You were probably just a kid yourself. Then, you came home. Neighborhood gossip said you’d picked up a heroin habit during your tour of duty. I watched you sit outside, on your parents’ front lawn, in your green flak jacket and play your guitar. And I was terrified of you.

I thought you might kidnap me and force me to take drugs, and then I would jump out a window to my death like Art Linklater’s daughter did. I didn’t know she was actually sober at the time, that Linklater had lied about her death because suicides can’t be buried in Catholic cemeteries. I believed in “Go Ask Alice,” and the “Blueboy” episode of Dragnet, where kids who took drugs just once ended up dead or burbling idiots.

You were just a young man who had seen too much, too soon, and if you shot up or smoked pot to cope, who were we to judge? Heck, you may not even remember me. Let me remind you: I was the little girl who, on her way home from kindergarten class, caught sight of you and immediately began running, as if you were evil incarnate. I’m certain I looked frightened. And what had you ever done to me? I remember dreading that you might be outdoors, scared that I wouldn’t see you until too late. You were my childhood bogeyman.

Would it have changed things for you if I had stopped and smiled? If I’d listened to your music? Did you notice me, and if you did, did it hurt you? For a long time, I’ve been sure it did. For that, I am sorry. You fought for our country and came home to an atmosphere that was solidly set against you. I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know that you were just another kid trying to figure things out the best he could. I didn’t know how badly you must have been hurting, to use drugs as a coping mechanism. No one talked about PTSD in those days.

If you are out there somewhere, please hear me: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I’m sorry. I wish I had been kind to you.

Perhaps this apology means nothing to you or to anyone. But I needed to do it, for the good of my own soul. I’ve prayed for you many times since those days. Wherever you are, I wish you peace. Please forgive me.

 

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Last Sunday’s gospel reading was particularly apt — Jesus walks on the water. Let me set the scene: The apostles are huddled in a boat on a stormy sea, as lightning crackles and thunder rumbles all around them. It is dark. The sea is writhing with terrible creatures determined to suck the boat under and splinter it like a bone in the teeth of an ogre. And then they see someone — Jesus? — walking on the water, just as if he were strolling down the streets of Jerusalem. It must be a ghost! But no, the apparition speaks to them, tells them not to be afraid. Peter, ever the bonehead, speaks up, “If it’s really you, call me and I will walk on water, too.” Jesus does. Peter starts out. But then he gets distracted by the thunder and the lightning and the roiling of the dark forces under the waves, and he sinks. Like a stone. Jesus, of course, rescues him, and once again, the apostles fail to understand the lesson.

Most of us set out on the sea of life with good intentions. But we get scared when the darkness comes. A majority of us will crowd together in the boat and ride out the storm. Some of us will try to walk, but sink. The weight of the world becomes too heavy to carry, and we slip out of sight. And some few of us will take to the water, navigating the waves as naturally as the path to our front doors. How do those people do it?

I used to think that those who are skilled at walking on water (metaphorically speaking) are so because they never take their eyes off the prize — God. They hear the thunder, see the lightning, know somewhere in the recesses of their minds about what lurks beneath the waves, but they don’t get distracted. They don’t let the water pull them down. This is a simplistic notion. Many things can affect our ability to cope, for instance, illnesses and addictions that sap our strength and change brain chemistry, throwing us off balance. Try walking on water with a millstone like that around your neck.

We mustn’t judge or condemn those who don’t make it. Walking on water is an act of extreme grace. It is a daily miracle. Most of us never have to do it — we just sail along in our fortunate ships. For those who must walk on water, God can be a tremendous resource, a lighthouse beacon, a life preserver. I have experienced this in my own travels. God holds me up.

But I will never be anything but empathetic to those who drown.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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