after “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and
Limits of Forgiveness” by Simon Wiesenthal
All day I’ve been beating my breast, begging pardon
of those I’ve offended: family, estranged friends,
and ex-dates. Cleaning the slate, the Rabbi calls it
each erev Yom Kippur. I’ve even emailed that asshole
out west with the broad-brim hat and feigned
swagger. Stop condescending, my wife insists,
but all I can see are the Cossacks attacking
my great-grandmother’s village, burning the matchstick
houses, their horses rearing like the Lone Ranger’s.
Wirst du mir verzeihen? the Nazi officer asks, on his deathbed.
He was hoping, his son says, for a higher appointment,
a little extra in his paycheck. He was a loving Dad.
He hated no one. Now he feels—what’s the word—bad?
Today, everybody reminds me of my grandmother.
Even Gandhi, who apologized to the microbes
before his every breath. If some prick calls you a horse’s ass,
Zayde warns before my first day of kindergarten,
tell them to kish mer in tuchas. If the whole class calls you
a horse’s ass, Bubbe adds, buy yourself, boychik, a saddle.
My whole life, and I’ve never bought a German car,
I tell my son. That’ll teach those bastards, he teases.
It isn’t for me, I explain, to offer absolution.
Ask for pity from those in the other world.
But I don’t mean it. I’m no tough guy. Even now
I’m sitting silently at my desk, soup simmering downstairs,
while Heschel and King, hands clasped in solidarity, hang
above my chair. And there’s Gandhi again, always Gandhi,
all eighty pounds of him, watching his every step,
feeding the flies, asking forgiveness of the thin air.
I’m sorry for your loss, the boy heard, again and again.
You think you already know that boy is me?
I’ve never told you before, but it was a black man
who shot my father. There were eyewitnesses. Maybe
he was Puerto Rican. It was a Jew who slew Rabin.
A white Christian killed King. For God’s sake, Medea offed
her own offspring. I never said anybody’s blameless.
The Lone Ranger, Bubbe insists, never hurt anyone. Maybe
she’s right. I don’t remember. I’ve even forgotten the name
of my father’s murderer. What good would it do me now?
Why the Jews? my son asks. He’s noshing right in front of me.
We fast, I remind him, to remember those less fortunate.
On Yom Kippur, I yell, your fate is sealed.
I’m hungry now and angry too. Soon I’ll be begging
his forgiveness. Soup’s up, my wife sings. It’s sundown.
She’s set the table with sunflowers. Where in the world
did she find sunflowers? I’m sorry, I tell her, for everything.
I mean it, too. My whole life is a bad cowboy song.
I know, I croon, I done you wrong. It’s no apology,
she calls from the kitchen, if you’re not sincere.
But I can hear from her tone that she’s already smiling.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.