Sunday, November 5, 2017

November Regret

I read about grief recently, how it comes in waves. The waves are strong and overpowering at first and you feel as though you’re drowning but in time they settle down and only come around in smaller and less frequent intervals. The reader was urged not to resist these moments but rather let these waves wash over you with the assurance that in time they will pass and you will not drown.
For me the waves come mostly in the fall. Or perhaps they are most notable in the fall because this when they are accompanied by the sharp pains of regret.

In high school I had a friend who was diagnosed with cancer. He and I had done theater together and I completely adored his gentle, funny demeanor. We had bonded over a few plays but we weren’t terribly close so I never inquired too deeply into his diagnosis.  I did know he had gone through treatments and was in remission when he graduated a year ahead of me, and in a pre-Facebook age I assumed he had gone off to college to enjoy a wonderful life.
The following fall I ran into him at a sporting event. It still stings to recall the moment because his smile and words were so kind and upbeat, “Hi Katie, it’s me!” He opened his arms and I hugged him, gingerly. It was clear his cancer had returned and the young man I had laughed with backstage during many a dress rehearsal was hardly recognizable.

At this point I’d like to say I was mature beyond my 18 years and grabbed his hand and sat beside him and listened closely to his story. If I had a do-over I’d have looked him in the eye. If I had a do-over I would have let him make me laugh, he had a brilliant dry humor. If I had a do-over I would have told him how much I admired him, how much I treasured his friendship, how grateful I was that we had run into one another that night. If I had a do-over I would have treaded tenderly into the “how are you doing” conversation and if he was ok to talk about it I would have listened, bravely.
Unfortunately, though, I was not courageous. His bright smile, excited to see a friendly face, was met by my fear. I didn’t know what to say. I stammered. I made very lame small talk. I told him it was great to see him, because it truly was. But I begged off quickly. One last tender hug and that was it. ‘He’s probably going through treatments again, he’ll be fine’ my ridiculously naïve eighteen-year-old self thought.

A month later I learned he had passed away.
I never cried so hard in my life. Certainly there was deep mourning for a precious, young life lost to a hideous disease. But also, there was intense regret. How could I have been so heartless, so fearful, so unkind? How could I have missed it so entirely, a chance to be a friend in moments that must been so lonely and terrifying?

I went to the funeral. I wrote his mom a letter. I told her how wonderful he was and how he would never be forgotten. I told her about how he would make us all laugh and how he would save my place for curtain call. I told her that I know someday we will meet again and I look forward to finding that same smile awaiting me at the final curtain call. She wrote me a long letter back and told me it meant a lot to her. I didn’t tell her that I had been a coward just a few weeks before.
For the next several years I would find the changing leaves always brought on a huge wave of sadness and regret. I would call my mom on a long drives and just sob, “Why didn’t I just TALK TO HIM!?!”

With time and years, the waves diminished, but the lesson was not learned.
In early November of 2008 I had a birthday party to plan and work to do and two little ones to care for so when I ran by my grandparents’ house I didn’t have much time to chat. My grandma asked me how the party planning was coming and I sat down for a few minutes to tell her all of the details. She had thrown some noteworthy parties in her day and it made me proud to be following in her footsteps. But when I got up to leave she urged me to stay. I remember thinking it was odd how much she kept insisting, “Just stay a little longer Kate.”

At this point I’d like to say I stayed. If I could have a do-over I’d have sat for hours. I’d have listened to her stories of when she was first married, of being a young mom, of starting a business, of when I was born. If I could please have a do-over I’d have thanked her for making my childhood magical. If I could have a do-over I’d have held her hands and listened to her voice and soaked in every last second.
But I didn’t take the invitation. I said I had to go, I’d see her soon.

Two days later I got a call that she’d had a massive stroke. I cried hysterically the entire way to the hospital, “why didn’t I just stay a while like she asked!”
She would never regain consciousness, though I begged her, and God.

My grandma had been a pivotal figure in my life and losing her, especially so unexpectedly, felt like a loss I could never fully recover from. And, once again, the loss was compounded with the deep regret of our last conversation being cut short by my busy-ness, and the assumption that we’d have more time.

It was nine years ago tonight that I left her house too soon. The wave hit me as I sat at an intersection near her house looking at the beautiful fall leaves. “It was tonight…” the wave crashed in. “You should have stayed….” regret quickly followed. “She kept asking you to stay, remember?”
I remember.

And regret still stings, and I am still so sorry that I didn’t stay. The same way I regret that I didn’t treasure the chance meeting with my friend with cancer. But, I am also slowly lessening the grip that regret has on me every early November.
Tonight I realized that the self-loathing ‘how-could-you-be-so-stupid/selfish/fearful/busy’ part of regret only serves to shame me for being human. In its place I must insert grace. No matter how much I try to be present and connect and listen well I will never feel that I have done any soul the justice it deserved when it departs this earth. It will never be enough.

The truth is that life is busy and hard and we are all doing the best we can with the skills and courage we’ve been given. We can all strive to get better and do better. But there will always, always be a gap. I was once asked by a wise friend, who had surely realized all of these things long before I ever did, “what do you think your grandma would say if she heard you beating yourself up so much about leaving that night?” It took no time for me to hear her voice, “It’s alright Kate, don’t worry.”
So, as the early November memories wash over me this year I am trying to experience the grief without the regret. There are so many good memories to treasure; I cannot let the last one hang round my neck so heavy any longer.

1 comment:

Jenn Beard said...

Such a beautiful and wise post, Katie. I think of you and all your thoughtfulness and hospitality. I have similar regrets of opportunities and losses but remembering that we're all in this together, trying our best, is definitely comforting! xoxox ~Jenn