Ali McGraw (and Hollywood) Simply Got It Wrong: “Love Means [Always Being Willing] To Say You’re Sorry”

In a total of 50 seconds, Hollywood did more to distort the true meaning of love for a generation than a small army intent on accomplishing the same objective could possibly have done in a lifetime.  In the iconic 1970 movie, Love Story, Harvard law student, Oliver Barrett IV (played by Ryan O’Neal), arrives at the apartment that he shares with his leukemia-stricken, wife, Jenny Cavalleri (played by Ali McGraw), only to find her shivering on its frozen front steps, having carelessly locked herself out.  Barrett, bearing no real responsibility for his wife’s misstep and resulting misfortune, nonetheless takes pity on her and blurts out: “Jenny, I’m sorry” to which Jenny responds: “No, love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Regrettably, the line resurfaces a second time at the end of the movie, when Barrett’s father, who previously had disowned his son over his decision to marry a girl from the other side of the tracks and later refused to provide the financial assistance the couple desperately needed to meet Jenny’s ever-mounting medical bills, reconsiders and rushes to the hospital to offer the young couple his help.  Upon arrival,  Barrett III encounters his son, who tells his dad the offer is too late – that “Jenny’s dead.”  When Oliver’s dad attempts to express his sorrow, you guessed it, he’s greeted by those same 8 badly misguided, but soon-to-be-carved-into-movie-lore words:  “No, love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  Eee gads!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5-8_1uCzR8

Obviously, I have no way of quantifying the impact, if any, that Love Story had on my generation’s willingness to say “I’m sorry,” though the movie was nominated for 7 Academy Awards (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Story_%281970_film%29) and the line made it all the way to #13 on the American Film Institute’s “100 years . . . 100 Lines” list of famous movie quotes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AFI%27s_100_Years…_100_Movie_Quotes).  Truth is, human beings have always had a difficult time saying they’re “sorry” to one another irrespective of “what love means.” I’m not entirely sure why that is.  What I do know is that, at times, I’ve been as guilty of it as the next person.  Maybe our reluctance stems from the fact that, inherent in saying “I’m sorry” is our having to confront its inescapable kissing cousin: “I screwed up!”  That, in turn, means acknowledging, God forbid, that we’re human and imperfect – and, at least in my case, that wasn’t something I was always/ever eager to do as a young man.  In fact, in my own sarcastic way, I turned Ali McGraw’s nonsensical line on its head, often greeting my children’s efforts to apologize in our family home with the phrase: “Don’t be sorry.  Just don’t do it.”  And now I regret every single time I uttered those words – even in jest – because of the not-so-subtle message they quite unintentionally inferred: “Why don’t you just try being a little more perfect, that way you won’t have to worry about apologizing.”  Eee gads!

For some reason, parents have a particularly difficult time saying “I’m sorry” to their children, even when their words (spoken or unspoken) or their actions (taken or avoided) clearly warrant one. Maybe they view an apology and the vulnerability and humility it requires as a sign of weakness, as something parents, especially dads, just aren’t suppose to do. My life experiences have, rather painfully, taught me otherwise. In fact, looking back, some of the most intimate moments I’ve shared with my children, even into young adulthood, began with a heartfelt apology – not unlike the moment Barrett father and son almost certainly would have shared had Barrett IV not interrupted his willing-to-be-contrite father, who had finally mustered the emotional courage to admit that he’d been wrong in allowing anything or anyone to obscure his love for his son. This message was driven home to me a few years back in an airport of all places – and through the tears of a perfectly adorable 4-year-old stranger.  While I wrote it down, I wasted no time calling my then adult daughter when I landed in Miami to immediately arrange to meet her for a snack and a cup of coffee at The Oceanaire in Mary Brickell Village, so that I could deliver the message in person.  It was a moment I will never forget – living proof that, while it’s optimal to issue an apology contemporaneous with the act or omission that precipitates it, it’s never too late:

Dear Ashley,

This afternoon, I was walking through Detroit Metropolitan Airport, en route home from a meeting with a client, when I saw a beautiful young girl with dark curly hair who couldn’t have been any more than 5-years-old walking alongside her dad, with tears streaming down her face.

I’m not sure why this fairly commonplace airport occurrence captured my attention (I certainly had lots of other “more important” things on my mind), but it did. Maybe it was because there was no apparent reason for the little girl’s obvious despair.  It wasn’t as if she were aggravated by her inability to keep up with her dad, as young children often are in the frantic family footrace from a delayed flight at one end of the terminal to an on-time departure at the other.  To the contrary, daughter and dad were walking, albeit distant from one another in other more subtle ways, at a very leisurely pace.  I also didn’t witness any event that might explain her tears (e.g., a fall, a disciplinary scolding, a “love tap” on the rear, etc.).  Maybe it was because, in the midst of his little girl’s tears of sadness, her dad couldn’t possibly have seemed any less interested.

Later, as I settled into my too-cramped middle seat for the plane ride home, I reflected upon what I had seen and wondered if the tears that littered the concourse floor had come from the little girl having just left her mom at the security check point.  Maybe this was her week with her out-of-town dad, who, but for a sense of obligation, would just as soon not be reminded of the marriage he had long since left in his rear view mirror. Or perhaps it wasn’t nearly that complicated . . . maybe she was just having a bad day or was afraid of flying. The point is: it really didn’t matter WHY she was crying; what mattered was that she WAS crying and that her dad, for whatever reason, was oblivious or, worse yet, indifferent to her tears.

And then, I started to wonder. I wondered how many times in your young and not-so-young life, I was that dad – how many times I could have but didn’t notice and try to dry your tears, shed openly as that little girl’s or in the privacy of your room, because I was distracted, indifferent, dismissive or simply absent.

I know there must have been lots of those times, Ashley, and I’m truly sorry for each and every one of them.

With All My Love,

Dad

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