I was an unrepentant grade-school bandit.
Okay, that may be an overstatement: I didn’t hold up the neighborhood piggybanks or kneecap kindergarteners for their lunch money, and the closest that I came to prison was a family excursion to Alcatraz. But plunder I did. Although my loot consisted of precisely one rainbow parrot tulip bulb pinched from a suburban plant nursery. In hindsight, the store’s design posed a hazardous nuisance for an eight-year-old: row upon row of ventilated cardboard sluices emblazoned with images of blossoming daffodils and dahlias, each containing dozens of embryonic tunicates. All at a rapscallion’s eye level.
My crime wasn’t exactly premeditated. Admittedly, I had cased the joint many times prior—yet always in the company of my law-abiding father, tagging along as he purchased his chrysanthemums each spring and assorted yard flowers every autumn from the same grizzled arborist who lorded atop his cast-iron shop stool with all the conceit of Lucullus overseeing his orchards. I’d savored the earth-scented shade of the aisles, dug my hands into the deep cool soil around the impatiens and Mandevillas. Not once before had my grimy fingers itched. Yet never had I previously wondered, certainly not aloud, Where do they plant the bulbs that nobody buys?
Every bulb won’t have a chance to get planted, my dad explained in the tone, he likely used to reveal grim diagnoses at the hospital. Only the lucky ones. Like ours.
And so launched my life as a delinquent. While I realized that I couldn’t rescue all of the nascent blossoms, I grieved for those kernels stifled at the cusp of verdant infancy. Might I not at least save one baby bud? I answered by scooping up the marooned rainbow parrot tulip cocoon and discreetly sliding it into the pocket of my threadbare overalls while my father paid for his Dutch irises and vermiculite. As we crossed the doorsill into the parking lot, I glowed as though I’d saved a human child from a fire.
My father, when I revealed my booty, failed to praise these heroics. He removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose in consternation; one customer’s intrepid valor, it seemed, was another’s petty larceny. Soon enough, I found myself back inside the Greenlawn Garden Center, cheeks aflame, extending the pilfered bulb to the bemused proprietor. I took this, I said, palm open, eyes closed, quivering to fight back tears. I’m sorry. If not my first formal apology, at least my earliest consecrated to memory.
And I was sorry: Sorry for the bulb. Sorry for myself. Sorry I’d been caught.
My penance was not severe by historical standards. Cross-reference the eleventh century Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, who knelt in the snow for three days until Pope Gregory VII forgave him for appointing his own bishops. Or Leonardo, the remorseful youth described in the hagiography of St. Anthony of Padua, who cut off his foot to atone for kicking his mother. But my pride ached as much as Henry’s knees before Canossa Castle, my ego wounded as bloodily as that Venetian lad’s leg. What pained me most was that I had disappointed my father, that he couldn’t recognize the more serious crime to be denying life to an innocent bulb. Not that this episode altered our relationship. I didn’t walk away nicknamed the Artless Dodger or relegated to my bedroom for weeks on a diet of gruel. In fact, I don’t recollect being punished at all. I imagine my dad mentioned the incident to my mother, probably joking that I was on the path to delinquency, and never considered the matter again. Nearly forty years later, when I asked him if he remembered my crime, he couldn’t even recall that a plant shop had once stood on the corner of Saxon Woods Road.
But I do remember. Edith Piaf may have had no regrets, and Frank Sinatra too few to mention, but my personal list rivals the Sears Catalog. Some are pedestrian, if heartfelt: I wish I’d spent more time with my grandparents, that I’d mastered a foreign language in college, that I’d held my tongue with ex-bosses and ex-girlfriends. But others are far more precise. I should have stood up to a particular bully in summer camp, even though I was never his direct target, a man who now attends camp reunions religiously to serve up gratuitous, long-winded mea culpa. One afternoon in middle school, I ought to have come to the assistance of a cancer-stricken teacher struggling to carry a shopping bag, rather than scrupulously avoiding eye contact. And that’s just the tip of an iceberg of sorrow: The summer night when I joined my fellow newly minted graduates in rearranging the tee signs on the municipal golf course was certainly not one of my finer moments, nor the time on a road trip through Utah when I offered the Mormons the home address of my most unforgiving medical school professor. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
None of these, of course, are Sophie’s choice. I didn’t abandon a steamship of passengers like Lord Jim nor auction off my wife at a county fair, like the Mayor of Casterbridge. The worst harm I’ve done in life is probably at the hospital—particularly during my grueling year as a medical intern—inadvertently missing a lab value or physical finding. Once, I failed to check an elderly woman’s cardiac enzymes in a timely manner, delaying her catheterization by nearly six hours; on several occasions, I left a routine lab off the morning venipuncture orders, forcing a patient to endure multiple blood draws on the same day. Nobody died. Or nobody died, at least as far as I’m aware, because the hardest part about being an intern is not knowing what you do not know. According to a Johns Hopkins study, medical error is now the third leading cause of death in the United States, killing between 210,000 and 400,000 patients annually. (“Study Suggests Medical Errors”).
Whether doctors should cop up to their mistakes is the subject of surprising controversy. The University of Michigan Health System pioneered the practice of admitting medical errors and offering compensation in 2001; over the past two decades, this approach has become commonplace in many American hospitals. Meanwhile, thirty-nine states have adopted laws preventing doctors’ apologies from being used against them in malpractice lawsuits—measures initially expected to reduce liability claims. They apparently do not. In fact, a major study published in the Stanford Law Review concluded that “apology laws increase rather than limit medical malpractice liability risk” (Viscusi et al. 341). That doesn’t mean doctors shouldn’t apologize for mistakes, just that they have yet another pretext for not doing so. Not that anyone, physician or otherwise, needs excuses.
The spring of my boyhood heist saw Peter Cetera and Chicago top the Billboard charts with “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” It was even harder to mean it. I certainly didn’t. From my perspective, the shopkeeper owed me an apology for my public shaming.
A wiser child might have dropped the matter. A savvier one would have bided his time, serving his revenge as cold as the heart of Judas. (If you’re in third grade, a note to your second-grade teacher telling her that she “ruined your life” hardly resonates; if you pen that same note to her fifty years later, it stings.) But I was neither particularly sage, nor particularly shrewd, merely aggrieved and vindictive, so I set my sights on instantaneous payback.
Have no fear, Dear Reader. I didn’t take a page out of Jane Eyre and burn the Greenlawn Garden Center to its foundations. Nor did I scrawl “Bulb Killer” in crimson marker across the building’s maroon façade. Instead, I waited until the next weekend morning, rising when the overnight holding pattern was still streaming across the television screen, to be certain that I arrived at the crime scene by opening. I made a point of generating noise as I prepared so that my father would stumble bleary-eyed from his bedroom, encounter me with my baseball glove, and hear of my plans to throw around a ball with a neighbor. Even at eight, I understood the importance of an alibi. Yet as soon as he retreated up the stairs, I stashed my mitt in the hedges and trekked the three long blocks to that Floral San Quentin.
The wire gates had already been unlocked by the time I arrived, propped open with potted hydrangeas, and Lucullus had yielded his post behind the counter to a younger woman who might have been his daughter, a brunette with long black hair cascading from under a bandana. She was attractive, I remember, adding to my angst: The prospect of being collared by a beautiful girl triggered a nearly lethal case of pre-traumatic stress syndrome. But if I wasn’t exactly Sergeant York, I was a knave on a mission.
My guess is that I only spent two or three minutes in the nursery that morning, but my shopping spree felt long enough to add rings to a tree. Row upon row I scanned the brightly colored labels, searched for the least expensive offerings. Eventually, I settled upon the corm of the Jeanne d’Arc crocus, whose white image proved far drabber than its name. These were on sale: Twenty-five cents each? Maybe three for a dollar? Cheap enough, at least, for me to buy a handful. Only purchasing a single sprout, I figured, might draw suspicions. For my father, I volunteered, proffering the salesgirl my crisp one-dollar-bill. She nodded indifferently. So, I thanked her and departed with haste, my three crocus corms in a small brown paper bag tucked under my elbow—and one rainbow parrot tulip bulb secured carefully inside the pocket of my jeans.
Vengeance was mine. Unfortunately, like the rabbi who shoots a perfect eighteen holes of golf on a religious holiday, I couldn’t exactly boast of my success. But I did find an obscure corner of my parents’ backyard—alongside a stack of cordwood from a felled crabapple, beyond the reach of the Portuguese gardener’s mower—to bury my treasure. I planted the tulip, then the crocuses surrounding it like primitive worshippers. My anthem that morning wasn’t Chicago, but Connie Francis’s, “Who’s Sorry Now?” And periodically, over the course of that spring and early summer, I must have pilfered a half dozen more tulips. Sometimes I made decoy purchases. More often, especially if Lucullus had his head buried in the sports pages, I filched my loot without ploy like the brazen felon that I had become.
To my thinking, the smug horticulturalists deserved this comeuppance. Had he permitted me my one initial theft, I’d have forgone life as a cutpurse. Instead, I’d emerged from my humiliation as the Harriet Tubman of the Scarsdale plant world, shepherding bulb after bulb into my private botanical garden.
What does it even mean to apologize? For the Ancients, of course, it was a defense, an ἀπολογία. Socrates and Tertullian may offer apologies, but they’re sorry for nothing. All that Cardinal Newman regrets in his Apologia for Catholicism is that one might not agree with him. Ironically, the first known use of the term in the modern sense belongs to Shakespeare’s Richard III—a monarch almost sociopathic in his lack of contrition. (The last hurrah for the term in its former sense might be Richard Nixon’s infamous “Checkers” speech.) Until recently, whether justly or not, this modern version of apologetics got a rather bum rap. Hemingway dismissed “sorry” as a “useless word”; John Wayne derided it as “a sign of weakness.” From Charles I, (“Never make a defense or an apology until you are accused”) to Henry Kissinger (“no apologies, no regrets”), avoiding public remorse was a cornerstone of received prudence. Never mind that Charles’s severed head was displayed outside a Banqueting House in Whitehall.
Of late, the pendulum has swung toward apologizing for everything. Some of these gestures are grave and symbolic and arguably long overdue: The United States government expressing remorse for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivering a formal apology to Aborigines; Argentina seeking forgiveness for the torture and murder of Desaparecidos during its Dirty War. Others, downright trivial: rockstar Ozzy Osbourne letting the world know that he wishes he hadn’t pissed on the Alamo in 1982. From Pope John Paul II sending Galileo his regrets to televangelist Jimmy Swaggart lamenting his adultery to George Wallace bemoaning having lived a life of self-serving, ignorant bigotry, everybody wants his own bespoke hair shirt. In fact, not apologizing these days makes news—as Barack Obama famously didn’t at Hiroshima and successive Turkish governments have refused to do for the genocide in Armenia.
Holocaust apologies particularly fascinate me. Maybe because this specific tragedy hits closest to home: my grandfather arriving in the United States a refugee from Nazi Europe, never mentioning the ominous close-cropped branches on his family tree; all three of my grandmother’s aunts perishing in the gas chambers. So should I feel a sense of relief that entire continental nations are clambering over themselves to say, “We’re so sorry”? How can one possibly be sorry for forebearers who murdered millions of innocent people, who collaborated in deportations from Westerbork, Drancy, and Mechelen, who didn’t even realize they were sorry for several generations? Perhaps the meaning is: If the opportunity arises, we won’t do this again. Or: Let’s put this episode behind us without any hard feelings. Or: Sorry we got caught.
Maybe I raise these atrocities to put my own criminality into perspective, to reassure myself that bulb burgling doesn’t merit a tribunal at the Hague. If I were Catholic, I might divulge my transgressions in the confessional and seek absolution. Alternatively, step five of many twelve-step programs, including Alcoholics Anonymous, involves psychological advancement through admitting to ourselves and to others the exact nature of our wrongs. In my own Jewish tradition, one repents on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, asking forgiveness directly from God. But what kind of God, I can’t help wondering, has time for the distant offenses of an eight-year-old red-handed green thumb? And what kind of adult even bothers to ask? Maybe the best way to show one’s faith in a divine authority is to avoid squandering His time.
They didn’t bloom, of course. Not the tulips; not the crocuses. No amount of surreptitious watering or gourmet plant food managed to bring forth so much as a solitary green shoot. As summer burgeoned, I began to view this failure as karma—punishment for my turpitude. In hindsight, planting spring bulbs in May and June, rather than in September, probably proved my horticultural undoing. Not that I had thought out what I might do if the tulips did blossom: Pretend they had generated spontaneously? Pray my father wouldn’t notice? Announce my wrongdoing with audacity, hoping that the rescued flowers would justify my questionable procurement methods? But it never came to that. No rainbow parrots bloomed, and my larceny outings grew less frequent, and as the lightning bugs of July gave way to the dog days of August, the whole enterprise lost its appeal. By autumn, the corner patch had been swallowed by the adjacent undergrowth, logs and shrubbery blanketed in vines. A year or two later, the Greenlawn Garden Center itself ceased operation, its verdant stock no match for escalating property values. Soon suburban ranch houses dappled the landscape where begonias and pumpkins once grew. My entire crime—scene, witnesses, plunder—had been expunged by the amnesty of time.
Or has it?
Apologies, after all, are about acceptance. That’s why the twelfth-century Sephardic philosopher, Maimonides, insisted that meaningful teshuvah or repentance could not occur until the offender has sought forgiveness three times. But how does a man atone for a youthful offense when nobody remains to receive his propitiation? I suppose I might turn myself into the authorities for prosecution, begging them on a one-time basis to extend the statute of limitations. With my luck, the D.A. would probably agree, and I’d end up the nation’s only middle-aged physician serving a long-delayed jail sentence in juvenile detention. But to what end? At the same time, it seems somehow unjust that my serial chicanery can be so easily effaced, wiped off the moral landscape as easily as purged Soviets apparatchiks edited from Politburo photos. Could this really be an authentic case of too little, too late? Of there being “Nothing you can possibly say?” Of history, whether writ large or small, becoming the plaything of the winners?
That brunette with a headband is likely a grandmother now. Lucullus, on the remote chance he is alive, must be pushing one hundred. What do they care about $10 in inventory lost during the early days of the Reagan Administration? Surely, if they do, they have far larger problems than a handful of missing tulips. But on the off chance, they happen to be readers of literary essays, and they happen to stumble upon this one, I want to convey to them that despite my burning shame, despite losing face in front of my father, despite the fact that they possessed thousands upon thousands of flower bulbs and could easily have allowed an innocent eight-year-old boy to keep the measly one that he’d tried to pinch—rather than tossing it cavalierly into an unmarked bucket—despite even the fruitless hours squandered trying to coax those bulbs from the cold hard earth, they’ll find me a big enough human being to say I’m sorry. Indeed, I almost am.
“Study Suggests Medical Errors Now Third Leading Cause of Death in the U.S.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, 3 May 2016, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/study_suggests_medical_errors_now_third_leading_cause_of_death_in_the_us. Accessed 5 Dec. 2021. Press Release.
Viscusi, W. Kip, et al. “‘Sorry’ Is Never Enough: How State Apology Laws Fail to Reduce Medical Malpractice Liability Risk,” Stanford Law Review, vol. 71, 2019, p. 341.