My mother is a patient person, shy of confrontation, who grew up on a farm. I have but one memory of her being angry with me as a child.
In northern Michigan the light can linger till well past ten, and if you are a child, whole lifetimes can pass in the course of a summer’s day. I spent many such days in the sandbox in front of our house, a breeze off the lake riffling the maples down Church Street.
Framed by old railroad ties, I sat in the sandbox my parents made for me. I remember entertaining myself with a spade and a set of plastic measuring cups, digging down through the warm white sand to the cold dark soil beneath. I was delighted to discover a worm, the first I’d ever seen. I was so young I had no word for it.
I held it aloft—this cold, wet, wriggling thing, clearly alive. I packed it into one of my measuring cups with a heaping helping of sand, set it in the sun, and promptly forgot about it.
Some time later my mother reappeared. She’d settled on the picnic table when I proudly fished out my find.
Someone else’s mother might have gently chastised me for forgetting about my friend. Or even admonished me for digging in the dirt. But my mother was seized by great anger.
She told me that the worm was dead. It had died because of what I had done. It had suffered, stuck in that little cup in the hot sun. I was the one responsible for its death.
I cannot overstate the impact this had on me. It was the first time I knew what death was—that it could not be undone. Also, it may have been the first time I experienced what psychologists call theory of mind: I imagined what this worm had felt as it died, its soft body cooking slowly in the heat.
And let me say this clearly: I was ashamed.
My mother has a tender heart for all living things. I remember one day, years later, she returned from a wedding in tears. They’d been given butterflies to release after vows were exchanged; she’d opened her box to find her butterfly had broken a wing trying to escape.
How could they? she said. What made them think they had the right?
I think of those words when I see images of the Santa Barbara oil spill, the white albatross coated in black crude. I think of them when I see the Alberta Tar Sands, the dead mallards mired in oily mud.
Shame tends to get a bad rap. But isn’t shame what you should feel when you have caused harm to another, whether intentional or not?
My mother seems to think she was too heavy-handed that day. I was just a kid, after all. But in such shame is the kiss of kindness. In its pain is a plain-home truth: we cannot disregard the harm we have done because we didn’t know better.
All we can do is learn.
Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions), which won the 2017 Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in The Utne Reader, The Nervous Breakdown, Story, Southwestern American Literature, and Weber—The Contemporary West, along with more than twenty other journals and anthologies. She holds an MFA in Writing from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as an editor with Indigo Editing & Publications.