What does one do with a regret when there’s no time left to fix it?
We think of this as an end-of-life question, right–someone lying on his deathbed thinking of the time he threw his child out of the house or betrayed his best friend or was too busy to go see his ill parent. And in fact the question arises here in the context of serializing my novel Angels Unawares on the website Reading and Recipes, a novel in which the main character, Joshua Earl, is in the last days of his life, determined to die in his house, tended by his (formerly) long estranged ex-wife Laura.
But while Josh has several large regrets that he shares with Laura, in a strange turnabout he is the one most at peace, as he slides back and forth between reality and someplace else, and Laura–who thought she had her life in careful order–is the one tormented by regrets and doubts.
And with this not so gentle prod, we’re forced to reconsider if the matter of unfixable regret is strictly relegated to end-of-life situations. Perhaps many of us are like Laura, with regrets lurking beneath the surface of our consciousness, locked away long ago but never gone, waiting to suddenly resurface if events–most often some shock or tragedy–jar them loose, tear away the emotional scar tissue encasing them.
Sounds painful, doesn’t it? Sounds downright awful! What the hell you bring that up for anyway, Jeff?
I could be coy and say “Read the book!” (Or listen to it–the segments are in audio as well as text format.) But to escape the accusation of being a shameless tease, I’ll share a few mitigating–and hopeful–ideas to go along with this downer subject.
Then tell you to go read the book!
First of all, every day is “end-of-life” when it comes to regret, especially those involving other people. This is certainly true in a literal sense–you could die today or the subject of the regret could die today and in either circumstance the regret would be left unresolved. But I think this point is even truer in emotional terms–each day the regret goes unaddressed is a kind of death: a day lost to healing, a day “dead” to reconciliation. Now, in the early days of the fracture, one might accept the loss of that day of reconciliation as the price paid to avoid the pain or awkwardness or suppression of pride needed to mend the injury. “I’ll let Hell freeze over before I’ll speak to that asshole” we say in self-righteous anger, gladly burning up the days, weeks, months to fuel the fires of our indignation. O.K., O.K.–I get it. You’re pissed. You’re angry at the other person or at yourself or at the world. You’re just angry, and hurt. I know. I know!
But what about when the anger finally cools–months later, years–but the regret remains, lodged there in your heart, festering? Isn’t each day lost at that point a small death for you? And if it is for you, then maybe it also is for the other party. And now two people have each lost another day to regret, however deeply buried. Each day is end-of-life when it comes to regrets.
The flip side of all this is the liberation that comes with the unburdening of a regret. Whether a repairing of the breach with the estranged party occurs or not–and let’s face it, the other side may not be open to mending the injury at the moment you are–in any case you can say you tried. And suddenly the regret is no longer a regret. It may be a sadness; it may be a loss. Or it may be a totally new opportunity. We can live with those. Can you live with a regret? Truly?
Now–Go read the book!