Sometimes there is no doing something over.
Regrets? As a guy named Sinatra (ask your father) once crooned, I’ve had a few. How about you? Of course you have. All of us have, all of us do, all of the time. For me, they come up with approximately every sunrise, when I think, “Oh, man, why did I stay up so late last night?” They continue shortly thereafter, when I hoist myself onto the bathroom scale, stare balefully at the readout, and ask, “Oh, man, why did I eat chocolate cake 10 minutes before crawling into bed?” Or worse, 10 minutes after crawling into bed. The scale stares back, no doubt thinking, Hey, man, don’t shoot the messenger.
That weighty issue aside, regret about a piece of cake is . . . well . . . a piece of cake compared to the bigger stuff. You know, like life and death. Once I was in London, and, like so many renegade revolutionaries visiting the British capital, I returned to the colonies with a story about the buses, the big red two-story jobs that careen through the streets looking for heedless Americans to employ in their strategy to reduce the surplus population, following the advice of a noted British author more than a century and a half earlier around Christmastime. Anyway, I stepped off the curb, looking sensibly to my left to make sure there weren’t any vehicles bearing down on me. There weren’t, and you know why. As I walked inexorably to my doom, someone shouted and pulled me back just as a roaring bus (let’s call it The Big Red One, in case you’re a military history buff) swept past in the other direction, the correct direction in England, close enough to swipe one of its big ads across the front of my Berzerkeley T-shirt and ultimately depriving East Bay news readers of the highly entertaining subsequent headline, “Local idiot squashed by big red London double-decker.” Do I now regret stepping off the curb? Nope. I learned a lesson, I got a do-over, and I flew home luxuriating in a middle seat in coach instead of stuffed into a box in the cargo hold.
Some regrets I can’t be so flippant about. For example, I made a bad decision about getting married, the first time around. We were young. We were kids. My intended was a sterling person, one of the best I’d ever known, and we were surrounded by friends cheering us on in a foreign country, an exotic land thrust more than a mile up under a pollution-free ice-blue sky, with (at least where we were working) no heat and no running water. Our parents, the people we could ordinarily rely on to nod, smile kindly, and ask such pertinent questions as, “Are you out of your freaking minds??!!” were thousands of miles away in another hemisphere, in a long-ago world of no internet, email, cellphones, texting, or Skype. So why not get married? What the heck, everything else was uncharted territory—I mean, to answer the call of the wild in the middle of the night, I was trekking out back to an adobe hut with no seat in the middle of a chicken yard. So we cast our fate to the wind. And eventually, the wind blew the marriage away like a Bolivian dust storm. Pretty much all my fault, in my opinion, so do I now regret getting married? Feel terrible about it, yes. Regret it, well, that’s a close one, but no, because I learned a lesson, I got a do-over, and I made a better decision the second, and final, time.
Lessons learned are fine, but the problem is you don’t always know how, or when, to apply them. You swear you’re not only older but wiser, and making bad decisions is in your rear-view mirror (never mind the chocolate-cake deal). That’s what I thought when my father was dying. He’d been ill for several years, and he’d lived a long, productive life, passing on to his second son (guess who) important lessons about how to be in this world. When I got the word he was near the end, we were living half a continent away, with demanding jobs and two young children. I had seen my dad just a few weeks earlier. I thought about heading back to my childhood territory to be with him again, thereby saddling my eternally patient and gracious wife with the exhausting juggle of job and children while I was away, something I’d done already, far too frequently, on business. I told myself there was nothing I could do to stop the quickening flow of sand through my dad’s hourglass. So I waited and then finally traveled back for his funeral.
All of that was almost 20 years ago, and the older I get, the more grateful I am to my sister and her husband, who were there for Dad and who clasped his hands at the end. My brother-in-law, bless him, placed his lips next to Dad’s ear and breathed, “We’re here with you.” They were the ones who saw Dad take his last breath. I think now, “How could I have not been there for the man who gave me life and raised me up? What was I thinking? Hadn’t I learned anything?”
So, do I now regret not being there when my father died? Yes. Now and forever. And this time, I don’t get a do-over.
Robert Menzimer is a freelance writer/editor and an English and writing tutor who lives with his wife in Albany. He’s still learning, so if you have any wisdom to impart, he’s ready to listen, at MegaBob@pacbell.net.
This essay appears in the January edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published online on Feb. 1, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.