Regrets and retreads

As we pass the 2nd anniversary of Mom’s passing, I’ve been sitting with a good friend who has recently lost her mother, discussing grief and the process of grieving.
In some ways, it’s not a simple thing, not an easy progression of steps, nor a checklist you can tick off one bit at a time and arrive at an end.
In other ways, it really is quite simple to understand the gauntlet once you’ve gone through it.

“I was fine at her memorial. I was smiling and talking to people. It didn’t look like her. It didn’t feel like she was gone.”
Yes. I remember that feeling of surreal unreality.

“I’ve cried every day since burying her. I still can’t go into the same stores that I used to shop.”
Me neither. I’d run, crying, out of a grocery store because the memories were just too much. It wasn’t even one that we visited together. It was the visceral memory of a childhood habit that gripped my heart and wouldn’t let go.

“I keep asking myself why I didn’t take her to X, why did I choose to do Y instead of Z? Why didn’t I ..”
I’ve second guessed every decision I made in the last twelve years. Constantly. I’m convinced that I was the worst daughter ever because the end, ultimate, result was that she died, never having recovered from her illness.

You could float on the sea of “if onlys” and “what ifs” that we create, in our grief, treading and retreading our memories.

Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.

But is it really? Is it really so much clearer now that events have irrevocably transpired?

A truth I’ve had to learn is that the other choice always seems like it would have been better only because I already know the outcome of the choices I did make. I have no idea what would have happened had I gone somewhere else for undergrad, if I had pursued a Masters or Doctorate. Maybe I would have had to drop out and be even less prepared to do the basics of supporting the family.

There’s a song by Little Texas that gets me EVERY time I hear it.

That knowledge doesn’t stop me feeling bone-deep regret for not pursuing a white collar profession where I could have earned enough to buy her health insurance outright (even though that would have taken years), or for being angry with her, not just her disease, as she became more ill and less mentally competent. I couldn’t take the step back at the time, it was easier to be angry than to accept and understand that I was losing her.

What might have been

In the aftermath, even after nominally accepting that I, mostly, did the best I could, and failed, I wonder what could have been done differently. And I wonder how much of my choices, and non-choices, affected this family.

Before carrying me to term, Mom had a few miscarriages.

What would have happened if I hadn’t been the one to make it?
What if my brother had a brother like he wanted?
Or what if he had grown up as an only child, with all the attention he clearly needed, without a “weak” (but meaner than a pit of crocs) little sister to take care of and be bitten for his efforts?
What if he hadn’t had me to practice his machinations and manipulations on?
What if he didn’t have a “follower” sibling with my personality and strong inclinations to academic achievement to contend with and push against in his attempts to lead me? Would he have actually reached to do something with his abilities instead of playing the comparison game and not even trying?

It’s part of the family lore that after a few days (or weeks, I forget) of getting to know me, my sibling picked me up and suggested they return to the hospital to trade me in for a better model. Unfortunately for him, hospitals didn’t accept returns at the time or I’m sure he would have just taken me himself. Kids feel that sort of thing all the time, but I wonder whether they all really would have been better off without me?

Without an extra mouth to feed, a second child to clothe, educate and worry about, would my parents have been less stressed, and more able to save? Did their circumstances dictate the outcome, or would their actions have been much the same?

Would my sibling have been the productive citizen and son that my parents prayed for? Would he have learned to use his copious people skills and talents towards a job or career, would he have felt the unbearable weight of responsibility that I grew up with, or would that still have eluded him?

Was it my fault, my existing, that played a key role in his failure to thrive? Is his failure to find a niche where he would excel attributable to my combative and competitive nature?

These are intertwined but I can’t help but realize that, like the butterfly flapping its wings, my very existence changed things.

Was it for the better?

I can’t know. I do know that as the surviving fetus, as the kid who did come along second, eventually, whatever ill my coming boded, I always felt a pressing weight. I knew fairly early on about Mom’s miscarriages. I know about the bigger than usual gap in years between my sibling and myself. Where other kids were two years apart like clockwork, we were about 3 years apart and, oh, the strength of will it must have taken for her not to smother me mid-scream in the first nine months I spent crying my lungs out.

It always seemed like I lost the genetic lottery: as the scrawny, untalented (no eye for art, terrible ear for music, only Doggle matches my astounding level of clumsiness), not terribly smart, really a bit of drifter with no dreams, youngest child, I only knew that I had to compensate and overcompensate to justify having made it.

The ghosts of those other babies, the ones my parents never met, haunted me a little. What could they have done with the gift of life? Would they have had the talent? Would they have inherited Mom’s gift with numbers, Dad’s ability to dream for the future? Would he or she, or they, have been the charmers, able to mingle and make friends everywhere they went? I certainly didn’t get any of that, so was that lost with them, leaving me with only remnants of determination and a strange love of containers to work with?

Sometimes it feels like all I have are questions, a sense of those nearly siblings’ unfulfilled potential, the uncomfortable prickles of something like guilt.

Without dwelling on the macabre, there are some studies that suggest that the influence of a sibling, past a certain point in life, is a stronger force in the development of an individual than even that of a parent. Anecdotally, I could see this. I learned from my parents, authoritatively, but I viscerally reacted to my sibling. At a much deeper level, I absorbed what I know of human nature from my interactions with him, by growing up next to him, and observing his experiences. By following my big brother. And I can’t know how my existence, my following, and my watching affected him. A bit like Schrodinger’s Cat, I guess.

Having made it this far, it feels like it’s my job to make good, to redeem the family name. I can’t change the past, I can only work toward the future.

I try not to think about
What might have been
‘Cause that was then
And we have taken different roads
We can’t go back again
There’s no use giving in
And there’s no way to know
What might have been

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6 thoughts on “Regrets and retreads

  1. You. Cannot. Change. Things. I know you know this and I know you know it doesn’t do any good to mull this over, endlessly wondering. But as easy and even tempting, as it is, there is no happiness down that path. No answers. No resolution.

  2. I am with Esther on this. You can’t change anything. What has been done has been done. It is only now the acceptance and dealing with the reality that counts (how you handle it).

    It’ll just lead to more frustration and stress (for no reason, as everything is already done), without a resolution, which causes more angst.

    You made it. I don’t know if anyone ever told you this, but you’ve made it, even if by your standards you tell yourself that you were the “weak” one (which I do not believe is true at all by the way).

    • Oh how I wish I could. But no, I don’t doubt my strength, just what good it did. I wasn’t intentionally thrashing myself though, it’s just sort of the natural progression of thoughts when helping friends deal with their grief & it hits too close to home.

  3. Stop that bad-mouthing yourself! You are a talented writer, obviously a good worker, a conscientious daughter, a loving wife, and a decent human being. You can’t be all things to all people and you can’t change very much in life. Go with the flow.

    Your brother has a mental illness. That would not have been changed if other siblings had come along. It would not have been changed if you had not come along. Indeed, if you hadn’t come along, your parents would have had only one child, a difficult and disappointing one, rather than one difficult child and one successful, loving, and responsible child.

    Dwelling on losses that were your mother’s and not yours doesn’t help things. Remember: Something’s lost and something’s gained / In living every day. The “something’s gained” part is the part to focus on.

    I still miss my mother a lot, and she died in 1976. However, it has to be said that I went through a period when I felt a kind of rage toward her:

    * She killed herself with tobacco. Even though another way of putting it is that she was murdered by the nicotine dealers, the fact is she knew she had cancer in her family and she knew cigarettes cause cancer. She could have quit when the government officially announced that tobacco use causes cancer…back in 1964. Probably wouldn’t have done her much good, but…whatEVER.
    * She ran my life and in many ways made me dependent on her.
    * She and my father forced me out of a relationship with a man I loved. They gave me an ultimatum: him or us. When it came down to “marry him and never see us again,” I chose not to alienate myself from her and my father. And I highly resented that.
    * She and my father made a decision about my higher education that was not in my best interest; I ended up at the University of Arizona instead of at Berkeley, where I was prepared to go by dint of four years of hard preparation in junior high and high school. And because I was trained to be so compliant (see item 2 above), it never even entered my mind that I could have resisted their manipulation and found a way to go where I wanted to be..
    * She believed the best job in the workplace I could possibly qualify for was as a secretary and insisted I go to secretarial school. This, so that I’d have a fall-back in case the husband of her dreams died or (heaven forfend) divorced me. At the time I had a Phi Beta Kappa key and a free ride to graduate school all the way through the Ph.D.
    * I married a man who exactly fit the model she had in mind — specifically because he was the “right” kind of man. Not being in love with him from the outset (or even attracted to him physically), I never was especially happy in the marriage.

    For years I felt guilty as a snake for harboring this complicated anger about her. But eventually I realized it probably was a psychological defense against the sadness of losing her. And maybe some people have to go through a period of anger or resentment after the loss of a loved one.

    Maybe. Just don’t turn it on yourself.

    • I guess I can take comfort in knowing that we DO do the best we can, the best way we know how, no matter what that shakes out to be. I will dispute “talented writer” though! :) Passing fair writer now, and aspiring to better. :)

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