Wednesday, September 23, 2009
This week I have heard from many people who are grieving--either for Maura or for someone else--and regret reverberates throughout their stories. I am blessed in that I have little to regret, although my mind keeps searching for ever more failures or omissions when I play the destructive "what if?" game or it's close relative, the "if I had only" game. What if I had paid more attention when Maura complained of cramps? If only she hadn't been misdiagnosed. If I had only figured out how to get to M.D. Anderson sooner. What if she had not had surgery before chemo? What if we had, early on, rid ourselves of every toxic chemical in our house? Switched to a wholly vegan, chemical-and-hormone-free diet? Chosen a less polluted city to live in? If I had only known...everything I know now. Would it have helped? Would it have saved her life? Would it have given her--us--another year?
Despite that macabre self-flagellation, I have little regret for the way I lived this last year with Maura, and that is a gift I owe to my mother.
Joel once told me that, after my mom died, twelve years ago, he felt as if he didn't have a wife for two years. That's because for two years after she died, I beat myself up for not having been a better daughter. I hadn't visited her enough. I should have spent more time with her. I let my busy life get in the way of spending time with someone I dearly loved. I never thought of the day she would no longer be there. I had taken her for granted. I grieved,yes. But, even more painful, I regretted every moment I had wasted not being with her. Grief and remorse. I think that we pair those two emotions together so many times that we hardly recognize the difference. But I know the difference now. I learned a hard lesson with my mom, and I vowed not to repeat my mistake. I vaguely remember it as a a kind of potato-wielding-Scarlett-O'Hara-fist-shaking promise to myself. More than anything else, that is what fueled my insistence that I take care of my dad when his Alzheimer's grew worse. I never ever ever wanted to feel the way I felt after my mom died, and I did not want to take any time with my dad for granted. I worked at not taking anyone for granted...not always successfully, but I tried...I still try. That is how I absolved myself of the guilt. When my father died, the grief was more acute because he had lived with us for a couple of years, but the regret was nil except for a few rounds of the "what if?" game--I don' think there is any way to escape that.
And with Maura? I worked part-time for ten months and took a leave of absence starting in February. At some level, I always knew that she would die, and I did not want to waste any time. I regret lots of little things, but none of the big things. I got those right. Maybe. The grief...the pure, guilt-free grief over Maura's death is agonizing enough. Adding remorse on top of it would be unbearable.
My recipe for minimizing regrets: Declare it "Opposite Day." Whatever you neglected to do, do. Whatever you did wrong, do right. If you refused to give blood because you are afraid of needles, give blood now. Better yet, go the extra mile and give platelets. If you didn't come home sooner to be with your dying friend, make sure you spend more time with your ailing parent. If you took a vacation instead of spending time with your sick loved one, spend an upcoming vacation helping others. If you regret not having shaved your head in solidarity with the one who had cancer, go buy a few wigs for current cancer patients. Make meaningful restitution. "Shower the people you love with love..." and don't take anyone for granted. Ugh-easier said than done. It is hard not to take people for granted. I still do it all the time, even when I try not to.
Anyway, thanks, Mom, for teaching me a valuable lesson, even after you were gone. I wish I had not had to go through such pain to learn it.