That was the funny thing about regret. It lived inside of you, shrinking down
until you could almost believe it had vanished,
only to spring up, fully formed
called forward by people who meant you no harm.
~ Julie Clark, The Last Flight
I have wasted much of my life steeped in regret. The mistakes I made, the chances I didn’t take, the ones I did that turned out badly. So many of these choices were fueled by inexperience and youthful exuberance, yet I rarely let myself off the hook for having made them. I should have known; I should have been smarter, more careful; I should have anticipated the way things would go all bad. I didn’t understand what a luxury regret is when there’s still time to make amends or the mistake won’t matter in a month or year. Or what a waste of time it is to strive for perfection, instead of wisdom and experience.
When the opportunity to make things right still exists, we get a false sense of power. We think we can take our time accepting responsibility, apologizing, doing better next time. It’s only when death robs us of the chance for repair that we realize the falsity of those cheery aphorisms about “no regrets” or “you’ll regret all the shots you didn’t take.” We may, but the regrets that burn are the words and actions we can’t take back after a loved one dies. Or the ones we didn’t say or do before they did.
Until it happens, it’s hard to the imagine the way life can change in an instant: a blind curve, a Fentanyl-spiked pill, a self-determined departure. Here, then gone with no time to react. Even when we get some warning, there’s often not enough time to fully atone for the past with so little present left to live. If only we had a way to go back and make a different choice, knowing what we know now. If we just had another hour, a few more days to get the words right.
On my worst days in the early years after my son’s death, I would stare at photos of Jimmy as a baby, the seeds of destruction already germinating in his brain, wondering if I could have known what was brewing inside of him. But if I had, what then? The treatments and tools to stop the virulent strain of his particular brain tumor don’t exist, even now. And what kind of nightmare would I have been as a parent if I’d known from the beginning that my child wouldn’t live to see his 22nd birthday?
I’d also study the pictures of us in Hawaii during Jimmy’s 13th year, our last days of innocence. A slight furrow of his brow the only hint of the blazing headaches that had already started. The four of us look relaxed, lighthearted. We didn’t yet know what was waiting for him, for all of us. The diagnosis, the brain surgery, the year of treatment. The way we’d pull together and make it through, only to have our once shiny life crack apart when the cancer refused to die.
Jimmy has been dead for more than nine years, and I am learning to hold the past more lightly now. There is so much I would remake, change, do over. The times I got angry about a missing assignment, a late arrival, a sullen comment. All that I wouldn’t let him experience in an effort to keep him safe. The times I pushed him toward something he’d have preferred not to do. I can’t undo any of it, and no matter how much I regret some of my choices, it makes no sense to try. Besides, what would be lost if I could? Just as shadow teaches us to appreciate the light, doesn’t regret help illuminate the joy?
This is the way we go. We hurt and get hurt and lash out at those around us. We make mistakes and muddle on, learning as we go. We stumble and fall and get back up, doing the best we can most of the time.
There is no way to reach my son through regret. He dances out of reach, more caricature than flesh and blood. I can’t even craft his side of the conversation. If I could, I suspect he’d most likely tell me to let it go. That he never doubted how fiercely I loved him. That the way I showed up and fought for him far outweighs the times I lost my temper or let him down.
Instead, I search for Jimmy in the silence, in the darkest part of dead of night. I apologize to the stars and grant myself grace for the many mistakes I have made. I listen for his voice, low and sweet, encouraging me to focus instead on the time we had. The way those memories endure, allowing me to feel him all around me still.