When Repentance Becomes Routine

If you say a word enough times, it begins to lose meaning.

As the only daughter in a desi household, I learnt the word ‘sorry’ rather early. I learnt how to pronounce the word in both English and in Urdu, I learnt how to write it in both languages from different ends of the page, and I learnt to offer it quickly in a conversation – like an immediate white flag pushed into the air between us, the second little-me felt any conflict rising. Getting caught watching a mildly risqué moment on Disney channel. Making too much noise while playing a game so my napping mother is woken up. Helping her carry a tray of beverages to our guests but spilling some orange-gold tea in the process.

I learnt how to apologize without ever parting my lips. I learnt how to hunch my body in different positions so that my limbs would spell out my apologetic existence. Sometimes the apology would slide down from my flushed cheeks if I was caught sitting with my legs spread apart, slowly slipping into my trembling knees as I would pull them together.

Sometimes it would hide in my averted gaze as I’d be scouring all the pretty colours in the bazaar until my eyes land on a man with a dirty smirk hidden under his henna-coloured mustache, staring at my underdeveloped chest and the exposed skin on my arms where my sleeves would end.

Sometimes it hides in my pursed lips and slow nod as a family member sits opposite me, ranting and raving about an incident I wasn’t even present for but their pain needs a kind home and a sympathetic companion so they draw the apology out of my emphatically batting eyes that tell them they aren’t alone, and that I apologize for the pain they’re in.

I spent so much of my life with meaningless apologies spilling out of me, I didn’t realize I felt so empty. It became the peace offering I would bring to places with strong personalities and different opinions. It became the torch of respect I could wave as proof in front of elders who found faults in the woman I was growing into. My apologetic nature became the shadow that would trail behind me without fail, casting itself in places it was never invited to but felt like it was important to slip in for a quick hello anyway. The word lost all meaning as it became a conversational crutch I relied on, whenever I felt the levels of homeostasis in a current environment change.

But eventually, after a long time of adapting, your healing leg can make you question if you need that crutch in your life. It’s like looking at an extension of yourself – a fifth limb – and revaluating its significance in your life. It’s getting off the bed and staring at the crutch stare back at you from across the room, and wondering, “Do I really need that to stand today? Or am I standing just fine without it?”

I got off the bed for the first time when I stepped out of the Boston airport and saw my entire extended family standing opposite me. They wore morose expressions and spoke only in whispers because all the words had been sucked out of our universe when we learned my older brother had hanged himself twenty-four hours ago at a subway station. The silence was only ever broken occasionally, by a mumbled, half-committal, unsatisfying-but-what-else-does-one-say, “I’m sorry.”

Sorry. A word I had heard so many times, it had become the bane of my existence for twenty-one years. And yet, here it was being spewed at me from all directions, in every voice, but my own. The unfamiliarity let the word bounce against my ear and fall flat by my feet right before I trampled all over it.

Sorry. What a useless, lifeless, small, five-letter-word that is meant to hold a pain so deep, it can cause earthquakes under the sea. A foolish sentiment, a conversational filler, a poor excuse for a word with meaning. What had been a lifetime companion became a stranger in a matter of moments as disgust drove the word far away and I hardened in the frigid winter of your grief.

Until I ran into the word again the next day. It sat next to the mahogany coffin my brother lay in, stroking his hair and whispering sweet nothings into his pierced ear. It had sat there waiting for me. It knew I needed the support today. It had saved me a seat so I could come and sit next to a face that looked like he was enjoying the last few minutes of a deep sleep before we were awoken for school. He was coddled in a white blanket so gently, I wondered if maybe his lips were blue and his face pale because he was cold, not because he was dead. I sat next to the face that lay next to me every night for years and whispered secrets into the air between us. I thought about how he managed to leave such a massive one out and how I never picked up on it.

As if someone had suddenly flicked off the lights, the whole world plunged into such biting darkness, it felt as if I had suddenly been consumed by the shadow of apologies that would trail behind me.

My brother’s death brought along all kinds of moments of enlightenment – some bigger and more dramatic, and some that would reside in the nuances. Reacquainting myself with what it means to be apologetic somehow fit into both categories. Lowering him into the ground that I must continue to walk upon made me reflect upon moments I was truly apologetic for. Not things I was taught to be sorry about, not things that others around me expected me to be sorry for, not things that other people attributed importance to.

I was asked if I was sorry for wanting to continue my education abroad after his death. Was I sorry for abandoning my family? Was I sorry for chasing my dreams and mourning him simultaneously? Was I sorry for telling on him when he was a kid? Was I sorry he felt like he had to take care of me as an older brother? Was I sorry I wasn't as good to him as he was to me? Was I sorry for not asking more questions when he called for the last time?

Every day I wake up and go through a suggestion box as large as the trunks we fit his life into, and browse through everyone’s suggestions of what I should be sorry for today. But every apology chips away at a person. Every apology shrinks a person down just a little bit. It can be humbling and reflective when it comes from within, but when you are taught to be sorry, you are taught to be small. When you are told to be sorry, you don’t feel the sentiment, you become the sentiment. And the word itself is reduced to a meaningless string of syllables held together by memory but devoid of any meaning. I spent most of my life as a shrunken down, quiet, apology that would vomit out the word to keep from rocking the boat. And perhaps it took a tsunami to knock me out of the boat completely but learning how to swim again taught me how to feel on my own terms.

I have plenty to be apologetic for. I lived my life with an older brother who felt tremendously alone and I wasn’t able to put his mind at ease. I have hurt others in the past, and I probably will hurt countless more. I have said things I cannot stand behind, and I have acted in ways I would ideally take back. I have made mistakes, and I will make more. But I also know that this is normal, it is not a condition specific to me. So why must I alone spend my life hunched over like a question mark, unsure of whether I belong, and apologetic for all that I bring along? I am learning to live with only four limbs again, that allow me to stand by the woman I am today and the choices I make.

And the apologies live within my breast pocket, like little roses I can offer out of my own volition, for anyone who chooses to help themselves to something I have not offered, is committing a violation. And I am not the one who should be apologizing there.