Regret doesn’t often come from large events, at least, not in my experience. No, regret seems to live in the nuance of a moment; in a missed conversation or look, a “thank you” never said, or an “I love you” that is put off until a “tomorrow” that never quite comes.
Regret is felt in the pit of your stomach, like that feeling of starvation you can’t shake no matter what you feed yourself on nights devoid of actual hunger and filled with too much… thought.
I don’t have too many real moments of regret, preferring to relegate unsavory circumstances and occurrences to a chain of events that had to happen in order for life to continue rolling along.
Or, I understand that that nagging feeling is more likely to be shame or guilt, as is the Midwestern custom, and I was brought up to properly bath in both, equally.
But, there is one specific moment in time that catches in my chest whenever I think of it. A moment that took me years to grasp the gravity of, because I never wanted to sit in it:
When my grandmother sat me down in front of her jewelry box and asked me to pick out a ring to have when she died.
I was with my mother, as it was her mother, after all, and I was visiting from out of town. I must have been in my mid-twenties because I most certainly hadn’t done any profound work on my Self.
My grandmother was grappling with the onset of dementia and while I had previously heard the stories my mom and dad told me of her calling them afraid of the man she didn’t recognize in her farmhouse (the unrecognizable man being my grandfather, her husband of over 50 years), I wasn’t quite privy to these particular moments of unclarity since I happen to live across the country.
So, as we sat there at the old, dinged up, tan-lacquered dining room table of the farmhouse that has been in my family for generations, my grandmother matter of factly told me to “pick out a ring”. She was then going to assign a ring to each of my female cousins (who also lived out of state but had been unable to visit). My mother had already spoken for one, which meant I was “off to the races” so to speak. Except, this was not a particular race I wished to be a part of.
I don’t think I have ever been more uncomfortable in my life, and that accounts for the time in the seventh grade when I was supposed to have The Talk with my mom, which was required for some class in junior high, to which I promptly exclaimed: “I already get it! Please just sign the sheet!”.
My grandmother had always been the very picture of a “stoic” personality; always very “matter of fact” in her demeanor. I honestly don’t have a lot of memories of her “at play” as that duty was usually assigned to my grandfather. No, my grandmother, Elaine, always seemed to be the “fun stealer”. Not that she didn’t love to laugh or play cards, but I never knew her as a woman to run around with a child-like sense of wonder. She was, however, marathon-level stubborn and would play the “Guilt trip” card like it was a piece of candy in a candy dish that she couldn’t resist. She could be cruel and, to be honest, a little scary, which was fully realized as I grew older and learned more about her relationship with my mom when she was a child.
My mom’s story is my mom’s story which is not mine to tell. I can only speak to my relationship with Elaine and, to that note, I forgave her. I understand that people can only do with what they, themselves, were given, and to grow up and live and learn in an era that didn’t talk about anything, especially things like mental health and stability, would be a fairly intolerable world to “grow up” in, in my humble opinion. Nevertheless, her mark was made on her family and on me and even though I grew to poke fun of her behind her back, I still loved her. It was the kind of love that stemmed from respect and fear, but it was there.
When I was younger, I would caretake and make light of a situation. These are things I have had to work through, as I know they are shame-based and deeply ingrained within me. I know I tried these tactics with my grandmother that day, but seeing her eyes well up with tears as she stubbornly pretended she wasn’t crying, was unbearable. She knew her mind was failing and she wanted to take care of whatever loose ends she could before she lost her last frayed edge.
This is something that stays with me.
We sat there at that table and I uncomfortably decided upon a ring, of which, I didn’t care about because I’ve never been that into jewelry, especially large, gaudy pieces that look very expensive and I remember the pervasive feeling that hung in the air —
She knew what was about to happen and in that moment, I didn’t realize it. I thought she was crying because the situation was hard. The nuance of what hard was, was well outside of my purview, until now.
She knew her mind was slipping. She lost track of time and when told of the events she pretended to know, but she didn’t know. She was terrified. Would she know her own mind in her dying moments? Or would thoughts and memories always be just out of reach, like in the moments that are deeper than not remembering where you put your keys even though you just had them? Have you ever had a moment like that? Not the “I know I came in here for something” kind of moment or even the “Shit! I just had my keys, where did I put them?” moment. No. It’s a moment I, myself, have experienced a few times where you know something is there — there is something trying to scratch through a steel wall that has come down between you and it, but you have no idea what it is, or even what came before the it, because usually, those are the pieces that can help you with the “Ah-ha!” of it. It isn’t even when you forget what you were just talking about — it’s more than that. It’s a physically painful feeling in that lost space of time — you can feel your brain scratching at the surface, trying to peel away the layer of thick, sticky film that has burrowed its way in to cover up your most precious memories… but your brain can’t peel it away. The it is lost, possibly forever.
Knowing what those moments are like, even if it’s just a taste of what’s to come, I cannot imagine sitting at a table with my granddaughter and asking her to pick out a ring to have when I die knowing that my own brain could betray me at any moment; not knowing if I’ll even be present for the very end of it.
I suppose once you cross the threshold into not being present anymore, it might not even matter, but I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s a place in your mind where you are screaming behind a locked door, desperate to be let out.
I don’t know what that’s like and I’m sure my grandmother didn’t know either, but being on the precipice of that knowledge cannot be easy. Just thinking about it makes me feel like I’d be suffocating alive in the maze of my mind without knowing how to grasp ahold of anything around me.
But that moment, at the table, I could have put my hand on my grandmother’s gnarled, gout-filled hand that was still diligently manicured in pink or purple, and I could have shown her empathy. I could have looked her in the eyes and taken a bit of that pain of her knowledge in losing her faculties, but I didn’t. I made uncomfortable jokes as a young woman in her mid-twenties and I pushed through the moment instead of sitting in it.
Ruminating on that taught me how to sit with her husband, my grandfather, as an accelerated dementia tore through his person. I’m not saying it wasn’t unbearable and uncomfortable to just sit with him in that state, but in those few moments where I would sit in silence with him and hold his hand, I imagined that I was holding hers, too; because everyone deserves kindness… and I’ll always regret not showing it in that moment at the farmhouse, at the tan-lacquered dining room table with the rings, my mother, and her — Elaine.