The first time my wife made any sort of official “amends,” she handed me a letter as she was getting out of the car at Starbucks. “This is for you,” she said, with no real warning or preparation for what I was about to read. “I’ll be right back.” So, while she waited on some hipster barista to make her the perfect half-this double-that something-or-other latte, I read a couple pages of a very formal apology, the clinical Cliff Notes version of the hell that had been my life for an undefinable amount of time. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the things she wrote. She was appropriately remorseful, specific with regard to what she was apologizing for (this has always been a huge sticking point for me… yes, you’re “sorry,” but for what?), and she was sure to include numerous assurances that things were going to be different from now on. Because she was different.
I sat there in the car, as alone in reading the detached retelling of my life as I’d felt when living it. I didn’t have anything to say when she returned, nor did I feel compelled to chase away the awkwardness of my deliberate silence. Finally, after a few minutes, she asked if I’d read it. “Yes,” I said, offering nothing more. And then we went on with our day.
I’m not sure what she expected from me that afternoon or if she even expected anything at all. My feeling at the time was that she was completing a task assigned by a sponsor or a therapist, something that she would now be able to check off sobriety’s To Do list. It seemed more for her benefit than for mine, a personal guilt cleansing that was little more than another selfish choice after a long line of addiction’s selfish choices.
Make a list of all persons we had harmed,
and became willing to make amends to them all.
Make direct amends to such people wherever possible,
except when to do so would injure them or others.
I became familiar with AA’s Twelve Steps early in my wife’s recovery, an effort on my part to verify and chart her sobriety. From the beginning, I knew that if she truly followed the steps, some sort of amends would happen eventually. I wondered why it had to be so far down on the list, though. Step NINE? Were eight other things really more important than saying you’re sorry? I also wondered about the specifics of the “except when to do so would injure” part of the instruction and how she’d have any idea what might “injure” me when her barometer for such things had clearly been defective.
When the amends actually came, on that lackluster first effort in a Starbucks parking lot, I found myself completely unable to hear, much less believe, them. I’d seen these sorts of exchanges in movies — the heartfelt tearful apologies and promises from the injurer, followed by the loving embrace of a benevolent loved one — but that wasn’t how the situation was playing out for either of us. We both had work yet to do and steps yet to take.
There would be other amends to follow, of course. Sometimes the amends were written, other times they were verbal. Over time, they became increasingly meaningful to me, as I slowly found myself more and more willing to believe in the veracity of her words. The best amends, though — the ones that counted more than any speech or Hallmark card ever could — were the living amends, the promises and apologies made with and by her actions. In that way, AA’s amends aren’t unlike any other apology, I guess. Say you’re sorry, sure, but then you need to act like it, back it up with your actions, and live this new truth.
The other night we were watching a television show when a scene came on the screen that, for a variety of reasons, hit a little too close to the hurt that had been my home all those years ago. Without missing a beat, my wife reached over and gently took my hand. Nothing needed to be said, no letter needed to be exchanged. In that one simple moment, a living amends.