Friday, December 20, 2013

And the Heavens Opened

I have had to learn some hard lessons in life. One of which is the lesson of words, or rather, the power of words. Whether words are used for positive or negative communication, they have the power to be remembered and sometimes regretted.

When I was 17, I was fortunate to have been an exchange student to Germany, spending six weeks living with a family outside of Stuttgart. A unique exchange, a German student came to America to live with me and my family in the spring, and I spent the summer with her and her family in Germany. While the experience was life changing, it was not without its hiccups, primarily based in the ability for teenagers to be more dramatic than necessary. I'll take ownership of that -- I was more dramatic than necessary at that age.

Shortly after my return to America and in the subsequent exchange of letters in the aftermath of our mutual cultural exchanges, I said some harsh words in a letter to my German sister. I have not heard from her since. At the time, I was angry and did not care that our friendship was severed, but as I grew older, my views tempered. I realized the mistake I made with my words. My words had crushed a relationship that had the potential to carry on for years, enriching both our lives as we matured and became productive adults. 

About ten years after my last contact with them, the gnawing regret of my words prompted me to try to reestablish contact, and I wrote a Christmas card to my German family. I bought a German language card at the local store and wrote a few simple sentences in the language that I struggled to remember. I told them of my life at the time -- job and marriage -- asked about their daughter, and wished them well. I did not hear a reply.

The next Christmas, I sent another card with similar well-wishes. There was no reply.

For years, I sent a card, each with well wishes, a few details of my life, and the only remaining fragments of German I remembered with confidence "Froehliche Weinachten." Each year, I received no reply.

As the years passed, I had time to reexamine the rift many times, the sting of my words, the hurt she expressed in her response, the stubborn stance I maintained. Each year I wrote my greeting card, I remembered the epistolary argument we had, and each year I felt more regret as I realized the depth of the pain my harsh words must have caused. 

I kept sending cards. Every year, I kept sending cards. I began to seal each card with a hopeful wish that this card, this time, would be the year they would respond. But no reply came.

This year, I thought about not sending a card, chalking the whole issue up to experience. But I just couldn't pass their name in my address book as I was preparing my annual greetings. I just couldn't turn the page. Opening the card, I penned one sentence (in English), "I think of you often." As I sealed the envelope, I whispered, "Please forgive me," and added it to the stack of outgoing mail. This was the 18th year.

My words from all those years ago had cut so deeply, no amount of time could heal the wound. I had to accept that and start working on forgiving myself for my behavior as a teenage with the inability to exercise good judgment. I have grown since then, learned since then, and would not do such a thing as the woman I am now. That had to be my lesson, and the consequence of two decades of no replies would have to be my penalty with which to live.

Today, it arrived. A plain white envelope with the distinctive handwriting of an architect - my German father. It was the most beautiful envelope I had ever seen. Tears filled my eyes. I outstretched my arms and spun in circles in the kitchen, my head turned upward, my face wet with tears. The envelope lay on the counter, and I stood awestruck in the kitchen.

They replied.

An overwhelming feeling of happiness washed over me, like Heaven had opened up her bounty and was pouring it over me. A more pure sense of happiness and gratitude I have rarely felt in my life. I stood with my face turned toward the sky, tears streaming, huge smile, and joy so powerful that the only words I could eek out were an inaudible mouthing of "thank you." 

The envelope lay on the counter, unopened. What was inside was not as important as the fact that they replied. I almost did not send a card this year. I almost gave up. I almost decided trying to seek resolution to a years-long regret would never happen. 

My words of so many years ago caused me -- and more importantly, my German family -- pain for two decades. It is a hard lesson to me about the power of words. In the years since, I have matured and learned to temper my words, though a few regretful utterances still occur. Now, though, I know to accept responsibility and apologize quickly because the alternative is much too painful.

The blessing of their reply was the best Christmas gift I could ever ask to receive. 

1 comment:

  1. Tears formed in my eyes as I read this. It is amazing how powerful words are and also how powerful it can be to never give up. xo


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