I could swear my grocery-laden supermarket bags are getting heavier. Walking home the other day, my right arm started to hurt. As I stopped near a corner and lowered the bags onto the footpath, there was a rattle of wheels and a flash of silver.
Looking up, I caught a glimpse of tattooed calf muscles topped with a flowing beard and man bun. Decades of motherhood have left me with good reflexes. A nanosecond before his scooter was due to collide with my buttocks, I flung myself on the nature strip.
"Sorry!" I called after him. He gave his scooter an extra push and hurtled down the street without a backward glance.
Gathering up my shopping, I felt a surge of anger -- not so much with the man boy, or the tomatoes oozing on to the pavement, but with my own reaction. My book "TUMBLEDOWN MANOR," about a woman of a certain age finding her place in the world, is about to be published in the U.S. No way would Lisa, the main character, have apologized the way I just had.
Thinking back, I'd already said sorry three times that morning -- to the woman who'd barged in front of me for takeaway coffee, at the post office counter when handing back a wrongly addressed parcel, and to a disembodied voice in Mumbai on the other end of the landline. Multiplied over a lifetime, I was more than a billion times sorry.
While I'm all for people expressing remorse when they're at fault, I'd become a compulsive apologizer. The habit stemmed from childhood, when I was trained to beg forgiveness for staining my apron while my brother could run wild.
Good mannered girls always said sorry, as if we were taking up too much space on the planet. We were told people would like us, and respect us more if apologized our way through life.
In the hospital after a mastectomy a while back, I was desperate for pain relief and pressed the buzzer. When the nurse finally appeared, I apologized for disturbing her. Instead of plumping my pillows for being a well-mannered patient, she rolled her eyes.
Every time I said sorry something crumpled inside. I'd reached the point where I'd rather swallow a cup of cold coffee than approach a barista with the regulation "I'm very sorry, but ..."
Dusting down my skirt as the scooter disappeared into the distance, I decided change was overdue. Next morning, when the greengrocer unleashed an avalanche of lemons at my feet, I helped pick them up, but drew a breath and kept the "s" word to myself. The unfamiliar shift in dynamics gave him a chance to thank me.
When an acquaintance phoned to cancel lunch, I allowed her time to make excuses instead of gushing in with "Oh I'm so sorry!"
As I trained myself to stop apologizing, I stood taller and felt stronger. I gave up saying "It's only me" on the phone. At the movies, when the man in the next seat claimed possession of the armrest, I refrained from withdrawing my elbow.
It's not too late to unravel a lifetime's conditioning and start living up to the characters I create. I'm not sorry.
Contact Helen through her website: www.helenbrown.com