The One Phrase Every Apology Should Include, According to Writer Kelly Corrigan
In an exclusive excerpt from her new collection of essays, Tell Me More, writer Kelly Corrigan recounts the tragicomical—and straight-up scatological—fight with her two daughters that taught her why admitting fault is just as important as saying you're sorry.
Start with this: our dog, Hershey, often takes me over my personal limit. She's had minimal training, a project that was squarely on me, so everything Hershey-related is my fault, which is precisely why her bad behavior has the power to wreck me. It takes a lot of discipline to create discipline, and discipline is not something I was born with. I married discipline.
A person less lame than I would teach a dog to keep her snout out of women's crotches, for instance. Apart from the crotch-sniffing, Hershey's big sin is drinking from toilets, which confounds me as it is demonstrably more difficult than drinking fresh water from the dog bowl I fill for her each morning and set down next to the patch of sun she likes to rest in. That said, lapping up toiler water would not be a problem if Hershey could get her fill without making such a mess.
Anyway: One morning on my 9 a.m. sweep through the second floor—turning off lights, hanging up towels, closing all the dresser drawers my children and husband leave hanging open like so many tongues sticking out at me—I entered the bathroom my daughters share and there, on the floor, was the most awful sight one can see in her own home: solid human waste.
“Mother of Jesus Christ Almighty!”
After more blasphemy and outrage, I covered the ordure in many layers of toilet paper and quickly transferred it from tile to toilet. There followed a few awful moments, moments during which one could only ask: How has my life come to this?
When my daughters returned from school that afternoon, I held a meeting to convey the gravity of the morning’s event. There ensued a solemn discussion about flushing, and more broadly, about me and my role here on Earth, i.e., the things I am more than willing to do as a mother and the few tasks that no one should ever have to do.
Georgia bravely said, “I thought I flushed but I must not have held down the handle-thingy long enough.”
“You have to check,” I said. “Every time. This must never happen again. Do you understand? Nev-ver. Say it with me.”
“Yes. Mom, I get it.”
Fast-forward two weeks to a gray Saturday morning in January.
We were downstairs, the girls enjoying granola with yogurt, myself a cup of strong coffee, Edward his bacon, when I heard a curious splash followed by the jingle of dog tags. Then: more splashing. And I knew. It’s happening.
“No, no, no!” I flew up the stairs to find Hershey scampering away, back rounded, tail tucked. “I can’t f—king deal!”
I still have wrinkles in my forehead that were made that day, standing in the doorway of the bathroom, the one with the darling West Elm shower curtain I’d just hooked onto the rings the night before. I gasped then shifted into a kind of rhythmic, minor-key wailing, like an angry orgasm.
Edward called up the stairs in alarm. “What is it?”
“Auhhhhhh!” I could not yet find words.
The girls and Edward bunched up behind me, looking over my shoulders.
“It’s not mine!” Georgia said, knowing her prior conviction would make her the prime suspect.
“God f—king dammit!” I hollered. “We just talked about this!” That whole big speech I gave, for what?
“I swear, Mom, it’s not mine! I swear. I remember flushing,” Georgia said.
“You didn’t. Flush. Hard. Enough!” I punctuated each syllable by smashing the side of my fist into my palm.
“I swear to God,” she said. “I didn’t do it! I always flush now! You can install video cameras in every bathroom!”
“All right,” Edward said, “Now we’re getting ridiculous.”
Oh, f—k you too, Mr. Voice of Reason.
Claire, eager to end the brawl, said, “I’ll clean it up.”
“Absolutely not!” I roared. Eyes darted between the girls as they backed away from me like I was a bat caught in a house, whipping around in circles. “Georgia will clean it up. Because”—I just barely heard the next string of words for what they were—“ in this family, everyone cleans their own goddamn s—t off the f—kng floor!”
Edward looked at me like I was a transient shouting madnesses on the corner. Georgia went to the kitchen for paper towels, Claire wept quietly. My throat throbbed from the yelling. It took a mile to regulate my breathing.
What is wrong with me? I celebrate my spunky daughters on Instagram but privately smash their spirits to bits over a trivial mistake like not jiggling the handle on an old toilet it might be time to replace?
What have I done? Let’s see:
1. I had perfectly modeled all the things I have been railing against for years—accusing, overreacting, “spazzing.” If I was hoping either of my children would stop coming unglued over, say, shoes that don’t fit or “someone” eating all their Halloween candy, uh, well, maybe not.
2. I had disgraced myself in front of my husband and co-parent, perhaps losing any shred of un-get- back-able respect, perhaps making it impossible for him to ever say with any conviction, “Kelly? Oh, Kelly is a great mom.” Not even as part of an anniversary card or a birthday toast.
3. Did I just tempt the gods to send me a real problem?
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When I returned, Claire was sniffling in my bed, scarred, no doubt, by my rage (more offensive than its inspiration), to say nothing of how deeply unsettling it can be to clean up human shit. I had work to do.
This would require a near-perfect apology. According to my mother, the cornerstone of a proper apology is taking responsibility, and the capstone is naming the transgression. Contrition must be felt and conveyed. Finally, apologies are better served plain, hold the rationalizations. In other words, I’m sorry should be followed by a pause or period, not by but and never by you.
Trouble is, by the time you’re in kindergarten, I’m sorry has been delivered so many times in so many tones, with so many intentions, followed by so much defensive blathering, it could mean anything from I wish I hadn’t started this to I want this to end to Jeez Louise, all right already, what are you getting so upset about? That’s why I prefer I was wrong. It’s harder to say. It’s singular in meaning. And it reeks of humility.
“Oh, Claire.” I leaned in to kiss her, eager for relief. “I was wrong.”
“You scared me.” She shrank back from me.
“I know. I just—Georgia and I just talked about this whole—”
“Mommy, it was mine.”
Could I be more of a mutant?
“Oh, God.” I stood at Claire ’s bedside, only a dozen steps away from where Georgia stewed in her room. Hands on hips, eyes closed, I exhaled again and turned toward the door. Hershey followed me across the hall.
“Hi, G,” I said. Her arms were crossed, her expression ice. She knew she had me. Maybe she expected to see me come in on my knees. “So,” I said, “I was wrong. Even if it had been yours, the way I acted was awful. But—”
“But—?” she said, winding up.
“Nothing. Nothing. I was wrong.
Excerpted from Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan. Copyright © 2018 by Kelly Corrigan. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.