I discover a way to repay forgiveness

I am crying emphatically in the middle of a parking lot in the shadow of a mountain in northeastern Japan. A pregnant woman stands next to me, expressing alarm in Japanese.

Having arrived in this mountain town three days ago from my native United States of America to teach English, and speaking no Japanese, I have no idea what sort of concern this woman is expressing.

Within 15 minutes of driving for the first time in Japan - on the right-hand side of the car, on the left-hand side of the road - I have rear-ended a petite pregnant woman's two-door white Isuzu with my four door blue Toyota at this small town's main intersection.

I am sobbing and thinking "what if?" scenarios, while the woman, whose name is Herem, speaks with her insurance agent. After my colleague Tanaka-san arrives and translates my words to two policemen in royal-blue uniforms and bright white caps, he finally tells me that Herem will go to the hospital for a check-up and that I should go home.

At 4 in the morning, I lie awake.

At 9 a.m. on the following day, Tanaka-san comes to my desk in the staff room.

"Herem say there is no hurt to baby. And she does not want you to pay for car damages. She feels very bad that you are new to this country and had to be so afraid and scared."

I look at Tanaka-san without seeing him. I am utterly relieved and in utter disbelief that Herem would forgive my carelessness with such ease and grace.

"Maybe you know that gifts are very important here in Japan," Tanaka-san continues. "I think maybe I will bring you to Herem's house later and you can say sorry and bring a gift. Many people give gifts as a small way to say thank you."

About seven hours later, I stand before Herem at her front door, bowing and repeating the only Japanese phrases I've learned so far: "Sumimasen, Gomenasai, Sumimasen Sumimasen," ("I'm so sorry, I'm so rude, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry!") "OK? OK? OK?"

I use smiles, nods, eye contact and body language to try to communicate my apologies and my gratitude for Herem's forgiveness, but the only things unambiguously conveyed are key chains and two boxes of candy from America.

The Japanese phrases and American souvenirs seem ridiculously inadequate symbols of my gratitude. It is impossible to use anything tangible to show my heartfelt thanks for the gift of forgiveness.

Three months later, I can't help noticing that a fisherman has suddenly driven his car smack into my driver's-side door.

I had been driving the speed limit down a wide back road on my way to school. I was thinking about the English-pronunciation lesson I had prepared for the day: "The difference between 'love' and 'rub.' " My mind is quickly brought back to street level upon impact.

After we pull into the parking lot of a nearby soba noodle shop, the fisherman comes to my car door and bows deeply to me without saying a word. I bow to him and see that he has remarkably kind eyes, rounded and moist.

A tiny, elderly soba chef scurries out of the noodle shop and whisks us into his restaurant. We sit on floor cushions in front of a table by the kerosene heater.

The fisherman is looking at me with deep concern. He repeatedly says, "Sumimasen, Gomenasai, sumimasen. OK? OK?" I assure him I am fine as the chef's wife pours us green tea. Tanaka-san walks in, his face filled with sympathy. He talks with the fisherman.

"He says he feels very bad," Tanaka-san says, "and that maybe the accident was his fault. He would like to give you money,"

Sometime between the initial exchange of bows, and the first cup of green tea, I knew I was not going to accept money from this man. To do so would be to say that chocolates and key chains were all that Herem's forgiveness were worth to me. To do so would be to uproot the goodness Herem had showed me.

I explain to the fisherman that I want no money from him. Tanaka-san and I tell him about my accident with Herem and her generous forgiveness.

The soba chef nods his head in approval.

When Tanaka-san and I finish, the fisherman gets up and bows deeply to me over and over again while he repeats, "Gomenasai, Sumimasen, Gomenasai...."

He looks at me with those big eyes, and I wonder if he'd let me call him "Dad."

Later, on my way to school, I drive past the scene of my first accident with Herem, and I began thinking. Herem came away from our encounter with key chains and chocolate. I came away with her forgiveness. Maybe I was the one who received the gift that keeps on giving.

Perhaps, someday, that fisherman will be wronged through no fault of his own. Perhaps he will have mercy and forgive. In the noodle shop, I found a satisfying way to give heartfelt thanks for the intangible gift of forgiveness: Pass it on.

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