When we were small and guilty of some transgression, maybe bopping our brother in back of the head, causing him to snort milk from his bowl of cereal out of his nose, our parents would look sternly into our eyes and give the standard order, "Say you're sorry."
We weren't sorry at all. In fact, we were glad. Who knew our impulse of the moment could produce such rich results? But we'd look at our feet and mumble, "Sorry!"
We eventually learned the power of that word, a free ticket to pass go. We'd kick over the pot of geraniums on the front porch, leave toothpaste globs to crust in the sink, or a trail of wet towels in our wake and if we just raised our innocent eyes up and said a heartfelt "sorry," our mom would sigh and forgive us.
In 7th grade, we bumped the universally disliked Nancy Brockmeier's elbow in the cafeteria just as she raised a spoonful of red Jello cubes to her mouth and sang out a sarcastic, "so-rry!" Then we'd prance away, snickering into our shoulder while the gelatinous blocks bounced across the floor.
In high school we had more to be sorry for - abandoning our best friend since kindergarten because she wasn't cool enough, skipping last period to sneak out into the spring sunshine, writing the key words to the history exam on the inside of our left forearm. But by then no one asked us to "say sorry." Our best friend just sat sadly at the uncool lunch table, our parents didn't find out we'd skipped, and the words washed right off our arm after we gained a pass to the girl's room.
As we grow older, we revisit the idea of "sorry." It might be just that we failed to hold the door for the person behind us, and then we recover, smiling as we catch it before closing. Threading our way through a crowd, our shoulder hits a stranger and an automatic, "sorry" pops out of both us and the stranger. The word has gained some meaning, but it still doesn't have the weight that our parents had hoped for.
Then finally, someone we care about experiences true and paralyzing grief, and no matter how much we look into her eyes or clasp a hand, we realize that our "I'm so sorry" will never, ever, be enough.