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The Book of Regrets: A Braided Story

On this date, seventy-nine years ago, my parents were married.
In the parlor of the biggest church in Dallas.
It was the only available venue my father could find on short notice.
It was very short notice.

I don’t dwell in the Land of Regret. My mother did, only she called it guilt. “I don’t want you to feel guilty for years like I have,” she would say, referring to not understanding that her grumpy mother’s complaints and inability to be appreciative were because she was old. “I don’t do guilt,” I said, wondering why she didn’t put her efforts into acting less like her mother rather than in shaming me.

Found in a box. Notes on her mother’s transgressions, written perhaps before a doctor or therapist appointment, or for a letter to her far away brothers.

Guilt: Doing something that violates one’s moral compass.

But she didn’t really mean guilt. She meant regret, wishing in the look back she had done it differently. Semantics. But what I meant was that I don’t dwell on it like she did.

Stellajoe had migrated from Tennessee to Spokane, Washington to work on an Army Air Force base.
Neither her job nor her boarding house accommodations were ideal.
George, a newly-trained wartime meteorologist, was in Dallas. 

November 12, 1943. “First I’ll come right out and admit to you that I made a mistake. I should have married you. The fundamental reasons for not getting married haven’t changed. But other things that I foresee have cropped up to at least balance them. I guess I’ve told you enough about Hensley Field for you to realize that we aren’t far from a peacetime organization. And I guess it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that I might hit just such a place overseas, even. If such a thing should come about, I wouldn’t be haunted by the fear that I’d come back to a young wife crippled or disabled. . . . I know your belief that if you love me you’ll never love anyone else. Frankly I don’t believe it.
Time is a great healer and over a period of years I know you could forget me.” 

Regret is typically based on the degree to which your ideal self (what you believe you COULD BE) diverges from your actual self (the person you are in reality).

I knew when angry words left my mouth, I would later wish I had been more compassionate. I also know if I had it to do over, I probably couldn’t have been more understanding in the moment. The words flew out of mouth in frustration, or bubbled up from my own hurt at the way she seemed not to appreciate my efforts; they weren’t from a lack of compassion. Or maybe the angry words were a cover for my own heart-deep pain at watching her decline. What I regret is that I didn’t apologize more. But I would have been apologizing constantly.

“I know I’ve bungled this business very, very badly, and it would be no more than I deserve if you didn’t want  to get married now. I can’t offer you any assurance of a week together even.
But I’m ready to get married.”

It’s been four and a half years since there has been a chance for a do-over or an apology. I am doing exactly what she thought she could spare me: regretting. I knew I would have regrets, I knew it then; but caregiving perfection was not in my grasp any more than it had once been in hers. So what to do with the expanding list? I am discovering that naming them, apologizing in absentia, forgiving myself, forgiving her, makes the vow I did make—not to dwell there—a promise to myself, and to her, that I can keep.

The long, rambling letter was slow to arrive.
On November 16, he sent a telegram, saying he was going to call.
The connection was bad. He proposed on the phone.
She must have told him she would write her response.

As I name them, though, I find a second distinction: not only guilt vs. regret, but regret vs. grief. It’s an emotion I’m still unpacking. Perhaps after the Book of Regrets is written—or at least begun—I will understand it better. I have a feeling grief is not as easily dismissed. Grief is a thing that, over time, we learn to embrace as part of our Self.

The Book of Regrets

❧ Soon after my arrival at my new old home, my mother told me she had asked the yard person to clear out the salal, Oregon grape, and blackberry vines at the landing of the steps to my father’s workshop to create an opening to duck under the vine maples to reach a small wild dogwood tree. She thought I might want to sit there. “Why would I want to do that?” I asked, my voice dripping with dismissal. It was long later that it dawned on me that she knew I was missing my home in North Carolina, and the brick patio I had made under a huge dogwood tree. She was doing what she could to help me find home again.

It’s been ten years as I write this, and the grief of my lack of understanding wallops me anew. I wanted to apologize, to tell her I finally recognized what she was trying to do. But I didn’t do it. In the last days of her life, I remembered again. I knew she was going to be gone and I knew would regret not saying I was sorry, and still the words wouldn’t leave my mouth.

I talk to her now at Staebler Point, in the city’s natural area she so loved. I speak the words into the breeze and hope she knows.

November 19. He sent another telegram saying he hadn’t gotten her letter
and would call when it arrived.

❧ I regret I couldn’t keep her in her beloved home, but the grief doesn’t reach so deeply. I couldn’t, I know that. What I regret is that she didn’t leave the earth before the move became necessary. And I had no control over that. She lived in the house longer because I was here. She lingered in this life longer because I was here. She didn’t die in a hospital, she was in her own bed, I was in the room. I try to let that be enough.

November 22. Another telegram saying he couldn’t get a call through, (after trying for five hours);
but yes, he wanted her to come, the quicker the better. 

❧ I wish I hadn’t asked her tell me how it felt to be old. It was not her responsibility to satisfy my curiosity. I’m glad I didn’t push. It wasn’t really what I was asking anyway. I was asking her for the first time in her life to be in touch with her inner self. I was asking her to share her Self with me. So I could share my Self.

November 23. He writes another letter and is waiting again for her reply, by mail or telegram,
hoping he wasn’t putting her on the spot.
He was sorry he wasn’t clear in the previous letter that he was definite about her coming.
“Maybe I did have too many ‘ifs’ in it.” But he needed for her to decide for herself,
knowing she might arrive and find him gone, deployed.
With no way to let her know. 

❧ A memory: She drove me back to college after some holiday and walked with me from visitor parking to my dorm. She held my hand as we walked. I was uncomfortable and embarrassed. But I didn’t pull away. One thing I saved myself from regretting much later.

November 27. She got her blood test, a wedding dress, and a train ticket. George writes his parents that Stellajoe was leaving Spokane that night, Saturday, and expected to arrive in Dallas at 8am Monday morning, November 29, after some thirty-six hours sitting up on the train. “Probably we’ll get married Tuesday afternoon.”

❧ We gave her Alexa for her last Christmas. She loved Alexa, and astonished us by being able to summon her. Mostly she asked Alexa to tell her jokes. Alexa kept her company, a voice in the silence. I regret not learning to program her to do more than tell bad jokes.

They “tied the knot” at 6pm, November 30, 1943.
With, in spite of rationing, a handful of rice for the four attendants and guests to throw. 

❧ After she died, and I was going through boxes of her notes and partially used journals and unsent letters, I found one in which she wrote her longing to have a different relationship with me. I didn’t know. We never said the words. We couldn’t let each other in. That is what I most regret. And the well is deep. And maybe it was always too late to pull up that bucket, neither of us were raised to bare our souls. I regret something that could not have been different.

Six weeks later, George deployed. He returned April 25, 1946. 

“I thought I’d come back to give my mother another chance.
I’m starting to think it was so she could give me one.”

JODI PICOULT

❧ I wish I’d taken better advantage of this second chance. And I was too tired just trying to get through the days. But maybe just having a second chance was enough, maybe it was everything. Someone said to me had I only stayed the year I expected, I would not have gained what I eventually found.

She told me, years later, he insisted she use birth control, which she didn’t believe in.
“He was afraid he wouldn’t make it back home from Europe
and didn’t want to leave me with a child to raise alone.
If he didn’t come back, I wanted a child.
To keep a piece of him.”

I am one of those pieces. I wasn’t perfect. But I was enough.

 

Opening the Door to Family Conversation

When I wrote Mother Lode, I didn’t give much thought to it being a good read for anyone other than current and future caregivers. Now that it’s out in the world, I am hearing from two other groups of readers. Those for whom caregiving is in the rear view mirror say it has helped them forgive themselves and their care recipient for not being their best selves in challenging times, re-storying their relationship into healing memories. And readers like Ray and his daughter, Bonnie Rae, report that the book has opened conversation between aging parents and their adult children about what is coming down the road and what to do now to prepare for it.
—Gretchen

I am not much of a reader, Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver is a must read for everyone, caregivers and care recipients. Most of us will either be a caregiver to our aging parents or be that aging parent, or both, in our lifetime.

My own caregiving experience is limited to supporting my wife Beth during her bout with breast cancer and her MS (Multiple Sclerosis) diagnosis. Both of my parents wound up in nursing homes. As Beth and I age, and become more dependent on our children, we have a greater appreciation for caregivers. This book provides insight into what we can expect as we age, and hopefully helps us be emotionally prepared for what lies ahead. Please consider reading this book. You will not be disappointed.
Ray Nygren, 86

When I started talking about Mother Lode, my parents both took an interest. Intrigued, they ordered their own copy and started reading as soon as it arrived. They each had a bookmark and took turns during the day, reading. And then something remarkable happened. We started talking.

As they got deeper into the story, we had almost daily conversations about what they were reading. Gretchen’s story became the springboard for a lot of new conversation. We talked about what it was like for them to care for their parents and for each other, but then we started talking about their own experiences this past year when they each encountered a health crisis of their own. [As we navigated their need for more care], reading this book led them to a new appreciation for those of us partnering with them.

Somewhere between Gretchen’s story and their own personal story, we started talking about really important things. We talked about the kinds of care they could receive at home and the possibility that as those needs change, so might the need for a different living situation. We have had talks about downsizing and about help with errands and chores. We’ve reviewed their advanced directive and spoken about other health documents like POLST [Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment] forms. Not easy or fun conversations, but another way to love one another.

The most meaningful thing about all of this is that it has helped bring us all closer together. Mother Lode is much more than a memoir. It is a doorway, a hallway, a window. Or maybe it’s a key that unlocks something beautiful.

Read it. Share it. Talk about it.

—Bonnie Rae Nygren (www.insearchofthevery.com)