I don’t trust people who say they have no regrets and I lump them into the same category as the arrogant folks who swear that they floss every day. Come on now, EVERYONE has regrets, even Frank Sinatra had a few. Unfortunately, regrets cannot be removed as easily as plaque, and they can cause emotional decay if left unattended. I should know. I’m approaching a milestone birthday the end of the month and my regrets could use a good cleaning. Okay, I promise I’m done with the dental analogies – I know some of you are running your tongue along the back of your teeth to do a quick check. Too late – you missed a day or two.
Regrets are never one size fits all. Some are tiny – like wishing you had ordered the salmon instead of the tuna. That’s why I always order the salmon. Those regrets du jour are easy enough to get over. It’s the biggies that haunt you for a long time – like the rest of your life. I regret that I didn’t hold my mother’s hand more during the eight months she was dying. She had beautiful hands – so very feminine with long slender fingers. I saved a pair of her gloves after she died, and I’ve pulled them out and put them on from time to time in the 20 years she has been gone. I stretch my fingers out as far as I can and squint a little to create a soft lens and I can almost see her hands. Almost. So why didn’t I hold her hand more? Well, for starters, she wasn’t exactly the affectionate type. She wasn’t cold – affection was just never her love language. She also had a wickedly dry sense of humor and if I had held her hand too much, she probably would have said, “Do you think I’m dying or something?” I feel lucky that I got a bit of her humor and making her laugh was especially satisfying. One of the last times I entered her hospital room, she was awake but so very weak and laying quietly in her bed. She smiled when I came in and I said, “Don’t get up.” I could see her fragile chest shake with laughter. It is the kind of memory that can save you on a bleak day when regret is taunting you.
You can organize your walk-in closet of regrets in several ways – tidy bins of them – professional, personal, financial, and so on. I can honestly say that I only have one professional regret, but it’s a whopper that cost me a great deal. I gave someone a second chance and they used it for evil instead of good. They tried to destroy me, and they almost succeeded. It took me a long time to recover from such deception and malice and the acquiescence of others who I once respected. But I’m here to tell you that karma is real, and it almost always catches up with cowards. I invested way too much time in the whys and what ifs of that debacle, but that’s what regret does to you. It can make you doubt yourself, but it can also force you to do a deep dive into your own stuff. And maybe, if you are humble enough to pay attention, you can learn some things.
There are no soft landings for regrets and the deeply personal ones can shadow your whole life. You might think you’ve moved on – and you probably have for the most part, but then something out of the blue, the thing you just didn’t see coming – can make that faint scar feel like a gaping wound. This happened to me a few weeks ago when I came across an archived NY Times article on the actress Lili Taylor – one of my favorites. The article detailed Taylor’s time quarantining in upstate New York with her family in a rustic farmhouse that she purchased years ago. The home is pretty fantastic, but not in an opulent InStyle magazine sort of way. The original oak floor, doors and stonework were all retained and restored. And Taylor used great colors for a lot of the rooms. It reminded me of the eclectic style that my longtime former partner and I were always drawn to. My memory Rolodex was already racing when I came upon a picture of the staircase leading to the second floor of the house. The wooden steps were painted apple green. Sounds benign enough, right? But that’s when I felt that undeniable undertow of regret overcome me. I sat in front of my laptop and cried. You see, not many people would make that choice of apple green for a staircase. It’s a creative, bold, and confident choice. It’s a choice that doesn’t care if other people think is weird. And that was my former partner to a T. I suppose now is a good time to state emphatically that I am very happily married to my dear wife, the minimalist who favors experience over acquisitions – and having all those feelings about that staircase in no way diminishes the love I have for her. No, in fact, those feelings give me certainty. I know I will never have those same regrets with her. Other ones, no doubt, but not those. My regret, the deepest one of my life, is that I wasn’t a better person all those years ago when I pulverized my sweet partner’s heart. I can make excuses – and I have made plenty over the years – both of my parents had died, and I was completely adrift in my own grief. I was lost and made some very bad decisions. And believe me, I have paid dearly for them. That was a lifetime ago and the afternoon I came upon that apple staircase, I think I finally found a balm for my regret – an odd mixture of memory, forgiveness, and gratitude. Not in equal parts, mind you – forgiveness is a stingy bastard.
I’ve always been a bit of a sentimental fool. I can still cry up my liver watching the Folger’s “Peter Comes Home for Christmas” commercial. Every. Damn. Time. And sometimes I can’t even make it through the opening credits of This is Us with dry eyes. My already flimsy emotional resolve took a beating during lockdown. I find that I cry even more easily now, and I tell people I love them whenever I get a chance – even if it makes them uncomfortable. I’m nicer to strangers and don’t hesitate to call out bullies and mean people. The pandemic illuminated my priorities in a Titanic lifeboat sort of way. I know the things I hold dear in a deeper way, and I have tried to let go of the things – and people – that will never be the way I want them to be. Turns out a mask can only hide so much, but man, letting go is hard – especially for someone like me who always tries to fashion a happy ending. And for the last time – yes, there was room for Leo on that floating door.
I recently had the pleasure of going to the Social Security Administration office to correct my date of birth in their system. Don’t ask me how after all these years that date somehow changed, but I think it might have been easier to just let everyone I know that I had changed my birthday. I had to provide them with my original birth certificate – which looks like it was run over by a horse and buggy and set on fire. I’m just grateful that I have aged better than it has.
Anyway, when I looked at that decrepit document, the first thing I saw were my parents’ names and I felt my eyes fill with tears. They have been gone so long now and it was startling to see their names in writing. And then I saw my tiny footprint – an inkblot floating in the corner of the certificate. My parents lost their first child, so my arrival was an even bigger deal to them and the sweet folks in the tiny town of Waverly, VA. The morning I was born, the doctor who delivered me drove down Main Street still in his scrubs yelling out of his car window, “It’s a girl! It’s a girl!” And everyone knew that the Ores had had a healthy baby. I could hear my parents telling me that story as I looked at my tiny foot and my heart swelled like the cartoon Grinch. I felt so much love for them and that baby girl that I haven’t always been so kind to. And I regret that.
I know I’ve spent too much time thinking about the past and the things I might have done differently. The things I wish I had said – and the things I wish I hadn’t said. The other day I saw a trailer for the new Hugh Jackman film, Reminiscence. The plot of the movie is about as clear as Medicare Part D, but the tag line stood me still: Nothing is more addictive than the past. Damn. I know this to be true and my gift to myself this birthday is to be more present. Yes, I know that sounds like a meme just waiting to happen – prime fodder for Bo Burnham’s blistering parody White Woman’s Instagram. If you haven’t watched it, do yourself a favor and click here. That’s one of the perks of getting older, besides discounted groceries – you can laugh at yourself more easily. Burnham nails it/me – I really do like tiny pumpkins and goat cheese salads, and I have a bobblehead of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and 20 years later, I still miss my mom beyond measure. Sometimes I am a cliché and that doesn’t bother me, because most days now I feel an abiding fondness for that older woman in the Instagram selfie. I’m damn grateful, too, because it took a lot of those inky baby steps to get here.
Present and accounted for.
Love is a mystery, from birth ’til we die.
It’s cross words at morning, by evening entwined.
It’s all that we dream of, sometimes it’s not right.
Love is white roses,
And you never ask why.
Lyrics from Roses on the 4th of July by Nanci Griffith.