She Smiled Back: An Essay on Regret

criticism mental health strength

To lose someone in your family can make you feel heartful regret on how you responded to their passing… but that regret can lead to a deep positive shift within.

The great human conundrum is how to survive our own pain. I’m convinced that one of the worst parts of life we each go through are those internal terrors we experience alone.

Sorrow, loss, regret… these are not physical manifestations that can be lived by more than one mind, not truly. Because pain is unique. It is explicitly designed by our own subconscious. These emotions have the ability to isolate us. This is a part of self-awareness, a slight hiccup in the gift of autonomy.

Regret is such a nuanced solitary affliction, coming in such a great variety of degrees. It can ambush you or fester and linger over time.

You’ve most likely had a moment when you remember an embarrassing memory and flush a little red. Perhaps your shoulders caved inward and your hand came up to cover your face as the cringe you were undergoing had a physical manifestation. These are the less lethal forms of regret.

What of the regrets that hit the pit of your stomach, and force you to examine whether you are a good person, living a life fit for your own standards? Those regrets barrel toward us at the hight of our vulnerability.

I was 18 when my one of my grandmothers got sick. At that point I still had two. My nuclear family became aware of this when our parents began leaving to bring her to doctor appointments.

Making your own dinner, or feeding the younger lot, was never an unusual circumstance in my household. Sometimes it’s the reality of growing up in a large family, but it certainly wasn’t a pattern. Until, one day, it was a 7-night affair. Who wants pasta and pesto? Mom and dad can have the leftovers.

A cancerous tumor was found on my maternal grandmother’s ovary. It was stage four. The cancer equivalent of a guilty verdict. She transitioned from life as a capable elder, to someone who spent most of her time in a hospital bed.

I was aware that my matriarch was sick, but suddenly she was dying. I didn’t realize it then, but time began to rush onward, faster than I was prepared for. When time passes, it doesn’t come back.

Relatives moved into her apartment. Conference calls were set up in the living room for her family living out of the country. You’d walk into the kitchen, for food or water, and one person would be quietly crying as an aunt rubbed their back.

I never got a single moment alone with her. And I never tried for one, either. I disassociated. Staying behind a comfortable barrier where I was witnessing without participating. Eventually I stopped visiting on a regular basis. I can still see my mother standing in our doorway, asking me if I’d come back to my grandmother’s apartment with her. She’d only come home for a change of clothes that no longer fit her.  She waited, silent, allowing me to wrestle internally and make my own decision, the effects of her mother’s illness were apparent in her eyes. I let her leave alone.

I couldn’t stay away completely. There were moments when I’d be overwhelmed with the desire to connect. Often it was when I was sitting at her bedside, watching her skeletal form struggle to breath, I’d wonder if I should hold her hand.

She died. Quicker than expected. There is no way around it. I fucked up in a permanent manner. By disregarding the gravity of an individual starting on the march towards death, we disregard the human who is losing their life.

You’d think that if we love someone we’d be unable to ignore them during one of the most important moments of their life… the end of it. Our mistreatment of the dying, often in our inability to be there for them during the process, is one of the universal mistakes many of us somehow manage to commit.

Regret relies on memory. We try to circumvent shame by living in the moment, keeping our gaze ever forward. We pretend that we cannot repent what we don’t acknowledge. If we never reconcile the past, would regret still be present in our rainbow of human emotions? The pain involved when witnessing the truth is overwhelming. I understand that pain; most of us can. Without it, though, I can’t say that I would have learned to act different.

Seven years later, in the deep coniferous forest where the trees block out the sunlight and act as mountains in a terrain that has none, I got a text.

I was completing the second day of a backpacking trip on the Superior Hiking Trail. My cell phone lost service miles before I’d even stepped foot on the trail head, and the battery was clinging to life with a measly 2%. I can’t tell you what possessed me to check it when I did. Against the odds, a text message from my mother had come through. It was one of those paragraph texts that is strange to receive from your parents.

I stood at the summit of one of the highest points in the woods, a sea of green spread out in front of me like an ocean of pine, but I ignored this idyllic horizon, scanning the contents of my phone as quickly I could manage.

My grandmother, this time on my father’s side, had taken a turn for the worse. Thankfully this was not unexpected. She was 93, and I’d spent roughly one day a week with her for the past year and half and witnessed her natural decline almost on a day by day basis.

Before I had time to take in all the details, my screen went black. I slid my phone back inside the front pocket of my backpack. The night carried out under the stars. In the morning we packed up, filled our water bottles, and finished the last leg of our journey.

Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.     

Sydney J. Harris

Following the tradition of twenty-somethings, we decided to celebrate our accomplishment with a beer. We stopped at the first bar we saw. It didn’t take long. While we waited for our phones to charge, the man next to me invited himself into our conversation about our experience with bear bagging, regaling us with the many tales he had of visitors to this area who had done it incorrectly. When he began rambling about how dangerous it was for inexperienced women to hike down these trails I excused myself, taking my beer with me, and headed to the mantel behind us where my phone was plugged into the wall.

I re-read the text. “You should visit her as soon as you get into town.”

I’d missed this part when I read the text the first time. This wasn’t a gentle warning that she was on her way to dying. This was the finale. I’d almost fucked it up again. We paid our tabs and got back on the road.

I walked into her bedroom with all the dirt and sweat from the days spent in the wilderness still etched into my skin. Like the good Irish Catholic that she was, she had the Rosary playing on a loop from youtube. As my cousin introduced me as her granddaughter, my heart broke to think she may not be able to recognize me, because at that point she’d become one of the most important parts of my life. Two years ago, when I was between jobs, she’d invited me over for lunch. Lunch turned into a bi-weekly engagement. Throughout the course of our time together I learned that she read the newspaper front to back every morning while sipping on a cup of hot chocolate. Her favourite lunch in the entire world was a simple peanut butter sandwich with a glass of pink lemonade, and she never missed a Timberwolves or Vikings game.

I could make her laugh. Sometimes I made her laugh so hard I was worried she might choke on her chicken salad.

I took her hand in mine and I didn’t let go. It was so fragile. Only bones and veins at that point. I stayed there holding her hand at the side of her bed, feeding her water, until the nurse came in and let us know it was best if she was allowed to sleep. I got up, told her I loved her, and that I would be back tomorrow. I’d be there every chance I got.

She died the next morning. That had been my last moment with her. Only a few cathartic minutes spared me from a new round of guilt. But I wasn’t perfect this time around, either. I never brought her my writing, which she was always asking to read. Now I’ll forever wonder how she would have reacted. If she’d have been honest with her opinions, or been offended at parts of my content. She did have a history of calling me a heathen. I liked to remind her of it. She’d smile, and tell me that she wouldn’t take it back.

To abandon regret you’d have to disavow your past. I like having a past. It is my proof that I lived. The counterbalance to the depravity of our inner solitude is to reach out and reconcile our actions.

We communicate our thoughts, we expose our misfortune, and mistakes, and learn in the process that remorse, while brutally unique to us, is found within everyone.