Regret is an insidious emotion, especially when there is no chance for a do-over.
I don’t have a lot of regret about my relationship with Tom. Yes, I wish we had lived in the same town our whole adult lives, or visited each other more frequently when we didn’t. But we talked on the phone often and e-mailed even more frequently. We knew each other well. He was my best friend. I can only remember a few big fights, each of which was quickly followed by apologies and hugs and sometimes crying. There are, however, a few missed opportunities near the end of his life that nag at me when I let them.
The first is an unreturned call. Tom had called and left a message for me a few weeks before we found out his cancer was back. He had had a particularly rough day and was calling to talk. I was busy at work and didn’t return his call until later that evening. It turned out he had lost it on the subway home and cried. It breaks my heart thinking of him sitting alone in a crowd of people; that he needed comfort and I wasn’t available. I wish I could have that day to do over.
My other big regret came the day before he died. When we arrived at the hospital, Tom’s doctor told us it was important not to pretend everything was going to be OK. He counseled us to let Tom say what he needed to say, to let him see us cry, to show him how important he was to us. That advice was the most valuable advice I’ve ever received. Later that night, after our family played Euchre, we said our goodbyes so he could get some rest. My parents walked into the hall ahead of me as I quickly told Tom that I loved him and was glad to have had him for a brother. I kissed his forehead and told him I would see him in the morning. Then I left him… alone in a cold hospital room on the last night he was on earth.
I can’t begin to explain how deeply, desperately, I wish I could have that night back. I told him I loved him, but I wish I had sat with him, holding his hand until he fell asleep. It kills me I didn’t do that. This regret, this missed opportunity, has consumed me many times over the past two years, including today. I’ve cried on and off for several hours dwelling on those few minutes in a relationship that spanned 46 years. I wish I could let it go but it’s not that easy.