I focused on balancing in tree pose as I stood facing the mirror covered wall in the yoga room. I was alone in the room, ending my Friday exercise regime with some solitary stretches. I liked that it felt a little indulgent; a way to reward myself at the end of the work week.
In the mirror’s reflection I saw Millie step quietly into the room so as not to disturb me. She paused and didn’t approach immediately. I sensed that she had entered the room to talk with me; a private conversation in a place where others would not be able to listen in or observe. I was grateful for her choice of venue as I was certain that she was there to chew me out. As I came out of the yoga pose and turned towards her I decided that I would hear her out. I would listen to every word and not interrupt; No matter how harsh her tone or vile her words. I would take it because I deserved the verbal lashing that was about to happen.
Somewhere around two years prior Millie was filling in for a staff member at the school where I worked, that is how we knew one another.
One of my school duties was to serve as the 504 coordinator. 504 is the shortened term used for section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are many reasons certain children can have a 504 accommodation plan. The plans, individually designed to meet a child’s particular needs, typically outline practices that will happen during the school day to keep the child healthy and safe with access to the educational programs.
During the hubbub of lunch time, Carol, another school employee stopped by my office. She looked stressed and explained that she was concerned about a particular student. She proceeded to tell me how Millie had disregarded the directives of this student’s 504 plan and how she was afraid that Millie’s careless ways were putting a child in danger. I had worked with Carol for sometime, however I had yet to figure out that she is one of those people that adores stirring things up and then sitting back and to observe the drama unfold.
After thinking things through I reasoned that I would relay Carol’s concern to the principal for her to deal with the issue. Millie was a contract service provider and technically not a school employee; I was not in her chain of command.
After the school day had ended the principal dropped by my office. She wanted me to know that Carol had not told the entire story and that when she had delved deeper into the events of the day she discovered that Millie had done nothing wrong, the 504 plan had been followed and Carol was just stirring things up. I had automatically believed Carol just because I knew her and also assumed that Millie was guilty because I didn’t know her other than face and name. We all know what happens when things are assumed. I was ashamed that I had not talked to Millie before reporting things to the principal. I wanted to apologize but unfortunately Millie had already left.
I didn’t see Millie again for a long time, probably about 6 months had passed when I switched my workouts at the gym from afternoons to mornings. Then I saw Millie at the gym three times a week. I tried to make eye contact with her. I wanted to smile at her and if she would smile back or give me any nonverbal cue that we could talk I would give her the apology that was due. Millie was quite adept in avoiding my glances. A few times I tried to approach her but she always seemed to either be talking to someone else or heading out the door.
The more time that passed the more I tried to convince myself that she probably didn’t even remember the incident or me. I tried to ignore the tension that was palpable when we were both in the fitness center. It would be fair to say that I tried to forget the whole thing. I also thought she might refuse my apology or even call me names, others might hear; I would be humiliated. I did nothing yet every time I saw her I could feel the negativity radiating out from her and being sent directly towards me.
Clearly, Millie had decided today was the day. She walked across the floor to where I stood. She asked if I remembered her and I confirmed that I did. I wanted to immediately spring forth with an apology, but again,I felt any verbal wrath that she might unleash towards me was deserved. She very briefly recounted what had happened two years before asking if I remembered it. I confirmed that I did.
What happened next blew me away. Millie told me that she is a Christian and tries very hard to live her life in a manner pleasing to God. She explained that since that day, when I was too quick to believe the negative things said about her, that she had harboured thoughts and emotions about me that were very harsh. Next, Millie looked right at me and asked me to forgive her for her negative thoughts and emotions!
Hot tears stung my eyes. Millie was asking for my forgiveness? She was very sincere and I knew in my heart that this was not some passive aggressive way to get an apology from me. Initially I was struck speechless. What a beautiful example of Christ’s love standing there in front of me!
I told her how I had wanted to approach her, to apologize and make things right, to win her forgiveness. I apologized and she accepted but also emphasized that she had not approached me seeking an apology. We talked a little more as the tension that had been thick and dense quickly evaporated. We both shed some tears and hugged each other before we had to rush on with getting to work and the duties of daily life.
Maybe it should have ended there but I couldn’t quit thinking about her kindness. The next morning while out for my morning run in my own neighborhood I was reminded of Millie’s Christ-like actions as I ran past Valerie’s house.
Many years before, when my son was in elementary school he and Valerie’s son had played together often. Valerie had hurt both me and my son by believing something she was told about my family without bothering to ask me or to check into the facts. If it had just been me it would have been bad enough, but she had hurt my child by not allowing her son to play with him anymore. I was as angry as a mama bear defending her cub except a mama bear can actually attack. The strength of my negative feeling had waned a little over the years but I never failed to remember the hurt as I would run past her house two times a week.
It occurred to me that I could decide to handle this in much the same way that Millie had dealt with her anger towards me. I ran on and went about my day but now each morning that I ran past Valerie’s home I would think about giving her an apology. I started praying about it, but I really didn’t want to apologize. The more I prayed about it the more I thought about it. I was hoping God would give me an out, that I wouldn’t feel compelled to apologize to this lady who had deeply hurt my child’s feelings.
When I would imagine the scenario I would often hear her giving me the long over do apology that I thought was due. When this happened I had to tell my imagination to “Stop”. I knew if I ever approached her my intention had to genuine and not self serving. I started making myself think about how I would handle it if she reacted in a smug or self-righteous manner. With each passing week I felt more and more that God wanted me to use the example that Millie had set and put it to work in my own life.
One day as I was heading home from work I suddenly decided, “Today is the day; I am going to just do it.” I pulled into her driveway instead of passing on by. I walked to the door and rang the bell. After a moment I knocked. Back in my car and heading home I had to fight off the little voice that wanted to claim, “Oh well, you tried, end of story”.
Several more days passed and then after driving by Valerie’s home I turned around and headed back; I needed to do this. Her husband answered the door and I asked if Valerie was home. I could hear the quiver in my own voice. He said she was home but had just laid down to rest. I started to say I could come back later when she appeared behind her husband in the foyer. The moment had arrived.
I asked if she remembered the incident and when she acknowledged that she did. I could see the apprehensiveness take over her expression. She had to wonder why I would bring this up after fifteen years, give or take a few, had passed. I couldn’t hesitate and I gave her a sincere apology for all the negativity that I had saved up over the years. I told her that I felt God was leading me to let all of it go and part of the letting go was to admit that I had clung to bitterness. She accepted my apology although she looked bewildered.
Mission accomplished. As I drove home, glad to have finally put it all behind me, it occurred to me that she did not offer an apology in return. I immediately reminded myself that it was ok, her apologizing was not part of my mission, my goal was to ask for forgiveness and that was successful. I slept great that night and the next morning I didn’t think about Valerie at all, even when I passed by her house on my way to work.
Per my typical morning routine I arrived to my office early. I liked getting a start on the day by checking email and snail mail over a cup of coffee before others poured in and the day became hectic. When my inbox popped up on the screen there was an email message from, you guessed it, Valerie. She thanked me for having the courage to give her an apology after such a long time and she apologized for her part in what happened years before.
I had not felt it necessary for us to rehash our differences and it seemed she didn’t either. It was nice that we both seemed to realize that dividing out the blame, one being right and the other being wrong, for the past incident wasn’t necessary.
I have since moved out of the neighborhood which Valerie and I shared and have not happened to bump into her in public, yet I know it would not be uncomfortable if we passed each other on the street or in the grocery store.
I changed my gym membership about a year ago but still see Millie once in awhile. It is comfortable and the dark cloud no longer hangs over us.
I am in no way saying that we need to apologize every time a negative or hurtful thought briefly dances through our brain but when it sits down and tries to embed itself into our core, action is needed and the sooner the better.
As I close this reflection I am going to take a little time today for some mental house cleaning. If during that time if I discover an old hurt that is still lingering around gathering cobwebs in my brain then I will do my best to clear it out. It is never too late to apologize. I often need to be forgiven for the things I do and things I fail to do; but there are also times I need to be forgiven for my negative thoughts. I am thankful that God sent Millie to remind me of that.
This story is factual however the names are fictional. If you found this story relevant or inspirational I encourage you to share it with others. Thanks for following and reading.
Pictures provided by, Patrick Hendry, Nathan Lemon, Kat-Ukawa, Tim Wright and Jeremy Perkins. Bear picture provided by Suzanne Pogue and the bears of Cade’s Cove TN.