Who’s Sorry Now?

Ellie, my sweet babboo, my busy little crawler — Today, I want to tell you a story. It starts with me.

Thirty years ago, when I was in my mid-thirties, I started to get yearly mammograms. No one told me to do it, but it just seemed smart to me. My mother had had breast cancer, as had her only sister and my father’s only sister, and I didn’t like my odds. So, I’d show up, get screened, and forget about it for another year.


One year, when I was 36, a form letter came back. Something suspicious, but probably nothing, get it checked out. I felt sick, as if I’d been kicked in the stomach.

The next day, I called my obstetrician’s office to ask what to do next. The OB, Dr. D, had delivered your Uncle Nick a few months before, and I liked and trusted him.

Dr. D called me back a few hours later. He knew of my bad family history with breast cancer and I’m sure he could hear the shrill fear in my voice. He said he’d arrange for a second, diagnostic mammogram.

“By the way,” Dr. D said, close to the end of the conversation, “what kind of health insurance do you have?”

I told him we were on an HMO — or health maintenance organization. (HMOs were popular in the ’80s as an attempt to control health care costs. They limited the roster of doctors you could see and required referrals to see specialists.)

“An HMO?” Dr. D said. “Then you’re really screwed.”


I was really screwed. The words ricocheted around my mind.

Remember, I was already an emotional wreck. I was already probably working on my funeral arrangements and thinking that my children would never remember me. I was already screwed in my own mind — and here was my doctor, my calm, seasoned professional, confirming it.

But it was one of those times you simply have to put one foot in front of another, so that’s what I did. I got the diagnostic mammogram a day later. It was quickly read by a radiologist down the hall from Dr. D’s office. This time, the scan showed no abnormalities: I was all right.

Except I wasn’t. I got dressed and walked into Dr. D’s office. I thanked him for arranging the scan and reading so quickly.

“But you should never told me I was screwed,” I said. “I was already scared to death — and your saying that made it worse.”

Dr. D talked. He told me he’d said that only because he hated HMOs and he cared too much about his patients.

“But you made me feel worse,” I repeated.

“That’s just because I care about my patients too much,” he repeated.

We stared at each other and repeated ourselves some more. He’d delivered my second child, had given me good medical care, probably did care a lot about his patients, including me.

It didn’t matter. I needed him to apologize and he wasn’t capable of it. All I wanted was a few brief words from him — yes, I was wrong. I’m sorry —  but he couldn’t do it.

I never went back to him.

This is a long story to get to a short point, Ellie, but it’s something I believe in passionately: Learn to say you’re sorry when you’ve  messed up and hurt someone else. Listen to the other person’s grievance, then apologize if you’ve done something wrong.


Say you’re sorry sincerely. You’ll make the other person feel a little better and you yourself will feel lighter, as if the world is back in alignment.

Sure, women are famous for apologizing too much. And we shouldn’t, unless we’ve done something wrong.

But apologizing when it’s called for is a sign of strength, not weakness (which is something many men — and especially male medical professionals — need to learn). You’re going to do stupid, cruel things in life; we all do. But do take responsibility for the wrongs you do, then get on with it.

How hard is it to admit you’ve been wrong and say you’re sorry? Pretty hard sometimes. So keep practicing. I love you, Coco

P.S. And “mistakes were made” is not an apology. It’s only a sleazy excuse.

(Copyright 2016 by Ruth Pennebaker)




  1. Brette Sember · April 19, 2016

    What a story that is. I find that doctors in general are not good at apologies. Maybe by the time Ellie is grown that will have changed. I sure hope so since my daughter is training to be one and I frequently send her emails of my complaints about the medical profession certain she will single-handedly solve it all. I will add “say you’re sorry” to the list!

  2. Sheryl · April 19, 2016

    One can never estimate the power of saying “I’m sorry.” I recently did it and felt so much lighter…and the other person – who I never ever expected would concede – ended up apologizing as well. Win, win. You’re passing such wisdom onto lucky Ellie…I just love reading your letters to her.

  3. Alexandra · April 19, 2016

    Great reminder. I apologized to my husband just yesterday. Everyone needs to know it’s okay to apologize.

  4. Donna M. Johns0on · April 19, 2016

    Ruth–what a fine piece, everything about it. The sentiment, we all need to own up and apologize from time to time, but also the personal history–the way you transmit what happened to you and at the same time share your values. And the writing is lovely and strong. Well done, my friend. I’m feeling writer envy. I love the idea behind this blog–

  5. Kerri @ Living Large · April 19, 2016

    What a wonderful story. I sometimes think medical professionals never feel they do anything wrong. I think another good lesson is to learn to forgive for the apology you never receive. Having grown up with a narcissist in my family, I had to do that a lot.

  6. Jane Boursaw · April 19, 2016

    Oy. That doctor needed to be slapped upside the head. I would have gladly done it for you, Ruth.

  7. Roxanne · April 19, 2016

    I’m big on apologies too. I’m getting better at saying, “Excuse me,” rather than sorry if I bump into someone in public, but when I’ve botched something, I do say I’m sorry. Maybe more than I should, but I like to think I’m leading by example.

  8. Sharon Lippincott · April 19, 2016

    Oh my, what a rich post. Your message and magical writing gave me goosebumps. Bravo for you on confronting that sorry, sad soul. And for not going back. I just discovered your blog and know Ellie is going to cherish your thoughts for decades to come, after she’s old enough to fully fathom them, and they’ll nourish legions of us sooner.