I was listening to a guided meditation session on regret. This is a powerful theme for me at this point in my life. Actually, it has always been a theme for me. If only I had done this and not that then things would be better is a phrase I have said so often that it has become an old friend. I suppose it is a learned behavior, something that I picked up as a child and never grew out of or learned to discard.
My Mother passed away in July after a battle with dementia. There I said it, yes my Mother had dementia. In fact, she struggled with mental illness all my life and probably most of hers. I loved my Mother very much but there were things she said that have haunted me all my adult life. My Mother had many regrets and would lament time and time again about her missed opportunities, or her poor choices or her lot in life. In fits of rage, or mental illness/anguish, she would even say she regretted having children. I did not understand her regret about having children, nor did I understand her pain. When I was eight years old she screamed at me "I wish you had never been born." This was after a fight with my Father when he had left the house again and I was there trying to pick up the pieces. I was her first born and my birth sent her down a path she seemed to regret on a daily basis with my Father. As an adult, I rationalized her statement and told myself she did not mean it but I don't think I ever forgave her for the outburst. That sort of statement is hard to stomach as a child. My Mother never apologized for that outburst but she did tell me how much she loved me. As I grew older she would tell everyone how proud she was of me. But deep down I always felt like I was my Mother's biggest regret in life.
When my Mother's mental health deteriorated and should could not safely live on her own, my Sister and I were forced to put her into a nursing home. I had an overwhelming sense of guilt about that decision. Here was one more way I had failed her, I could not take care of her, I could not save her. I suffered during visits with my Mother. My wife even named the syndrome. Before each visit, my demeanor would change and I would become sullen, not knowing whether or not my Mother would be glad to see me, hate me, be angry or beg me to take her out of the wretched place or throw me out telling me to go back to my easy life. I was doing everything I could but still, I regretted not doing enough. As time wore on my Mother would not remember the rants and as the years wore on she did not remember us. Dementia is a cruel disease that robs the afflicted of their autonomy and the family of their dignity. We pour millions of dollars into research to make sure men of any age can secure an erection but we cannot seem to find the same driving force of will to look for a cure for dementia or Alzheimer's. I suppose that is another blog post because this one is about regret.
Packing up my Mother's apartment in her senior living building, I discovered hundreds of post-it notes. There were notes reminding her to check in daily, or call the doctor, or not to use the stove, or important phone numbers, religious sayings, helpful and positive thoughts, or random things she wanted to remember. I was creeped out by the religious things but I chalked that up to her seeking comfort in the fundamentalist teachings of her youth. Teachings she wanted nothing to do with for most of her adult life, but in the end, she found comfort in returning to her religious roots. What struck me the most was a note tucked into a journal that said: "I regret my regrets." I would not have found the note if I had not been looking for information about my Mother's wishes for her funeral service.
I saved that note, filed it away to deal with later because it was too much for me to deal with at the time. However, filing it away did not mean I stopped thinking about the note. In fact, I assumed the worst case scenario about this note. In other words, I assumed my Mother regretted everything in her life even the fact that she had regrets. I was eight years old again and was faced with the regret over my own existence. Conversely, in the meditation, I was confronted with a different possibility. Regret comes from an assumption that the choice you did not make would have a positive outcome. Regret does not take into account that the other choice could have been far worse than the choice you did make. For me this concept made my Mother's note make sense and turned it into a positive statement. In just four words my Mother summed up this concept and basically sent me a message in a virtual bottle saying stop regretting and start living because she ended up with only regrets.
I still remember the moment on the bus where I was hit with this revelation. I had believed all my life that regret was a natural phenomenon. It was natural to tell yourself you should have gone to a different school because you would have had so many other opportunities or you should have asked that one girl out because look what she became. Somewhere on 6th Avenue on the 116x regret took on a whole new meaning for me. So the choice I have regretted for so many years actually could have been worse? For me, this concept was, well pretty freaking mind-blowing. It was like a Tesla bulb inside a hand grenade wrapped in a tortilla with a sprinkling of hop off your pity potty you narcissist freak salsa was dumped inside my brain. Seriously, the statement rocked my world. My Mother's note makes sense, hell in some ways my Mother made sense. The note changed from such a terrible epithet to a positive life lesson. In just four words my Mother summed up this concept and basically sent me a message in a virtual bottle saying stop regretting and start living. "I regret my regrets" means she wished she had embraced her life.
During the rest of the guided meditation, I embraced my Mother's life. I remembered all of the incredible things she accomplished during her life. She was an elected official with only a high school diploma. She got her real estate license. She went back to school and got her Bachelor's degree at 50. She had her own insurance business. She raised two daughters on her own. She had four grandchildren. I remembered her smile, her laugh and her undying love for her family. I embraced her lesson and heard her telling me to be different than her, to celebrate my life, to forget about regrets because she focused so much on her regrets that she ended up with only regrets. I believe this led to the rapid decline of her mental health.
As part of the assignment of this guided meditation, I was to write down things that I regret. The next day I was to read my regrets and cross them off like a psychic task list. The act of crossing them off my list was to consider them and then move on. One of the items was I regretted not confronting my Mother about her mental illness and the impact it had upon my life. Writing this regret and then crossing it off provided a sense of closure, a feeling of peace, and a feeling of inner calm. Dealing with my Mother's mental illness provided me with skills and strategies that are an intricate part of my personality, my thought processes, my emotional intelligence and my worldview. Any other regret on my list seemed trivial when I considered what I did have and the place I am in right now in my life. Watching my Mother accomplish so much while dealing with mental illness, an alcoholic and abusive husband, a four career changes made me proud of her. Proud to be her daughter.
I think this was my Mother's message for me. It was by chance that I found her note. I think she wrote that during a lucid moment, tucked it inside a notebook where she put other information we would need and as a way for me to move on without any regrets. Now I look at her pictures and see her beautiful smile and I hear her laughter. I remember her telling me it was so easy to be with me because I could always make her laugh. Now I have no regrets because with four simple words she showed me what a great life I have.
Thanks, mom, I love you and I forgive you for your regrets.