Dealing with Our “If Only”s

Dealing with Our “If Only”s June 21, 2014

I am pleased to be participating in a blog tour for my friend Michelle Van Loon’s new book from Beacon Hill Press, If Only: Letting Go of Regret. Regret is one of the most devastating emotions, I think, and one we simply don’t know what to do with. We’ve learned to deal with our anger by counting to 10 before reacting to someone who makes us mad. We’ve learned to deal with hurt feelings by using “I” statements rather than accusing the other person of nefarious motives. But what do we do with the toxic horror of realizing that we made the wrong choice, did the wrong thing? I find it so hard to watch my kids experience regret, to see sadness, shame, and helplessness dawn on their faces when they realize they can’t un-say the thing that got them into trouble, or fix the thing that broke because they were careless. I think of relatively trivial mistakes I’ve made that still make me feel ashamed and angry with myself. The bigger mistakes—the hurtful things said or done that forever changed the nature of a friendship, the money spent on things that turned out to not be worth it in so many ways—I can hardly think about at all.

I’m grateful to Michelle for delving into the tricky waters of regret, and writing about it with skill, insight and compassion. Below is an excerpt from If Only. You can read the continuation of this excerpt tomorrow on Michelle’s blog.

If Only Excerpt from Chapter 9: Part 1

Can You Keep a Secret?

A few weeks before my parents’ wedding in 1957, my mom, then eighteen years old, got a phone call from George, a man she’d met a couple of times in passing during visits to New York City to see extended family. George told her that he really wanted to attend her upcoming wedding but hadn’t been invited. She knew him as a distant cousin, so his request seemed to come from out of nowhere. And then he explained why he’d been compelled to ask with a single sentence that upended and scattered everything she’d ever believed true about her life.

“I am your father.”

My mom didn’t know she was adopted until she got that phone call. She never, ever talked about what happened in the hours and days after that traumatic phone call. What did the people who raised her, the only parents she’d ever known, say to her? What did she think? How did she feel?

My mom’s birthmother, Molly, died shortly after giving birth to her. George had no idea how he would be able to care for a new­born in addition to his nine-year-old son. Several aunts and uncles who lived nearby stepped in to ensure that the boy would be cared for while George was at work. But a newborn baby needed so much more than any one of them could give her.

News of Molly’s death spread through the grapevine of the ex­tended family. At the distant end of that grapevine, Barbara, one of Molly’s cousins who lived in Chicago, heard about the moth­erless child and believed this baby might just be the answer to her prayers. She and her husband, Louis, had never been able to have children, and she wanted a family more than anything. Louis was indifferent to the idea. He enjoyed his position as king of the household and wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of sharing his throne with a kid.

But Barbara eventually got him to agree to reach out to George. The pair let George know that they’d raise the baby as their own if, and only if, everyone in the family was sworn to secrecy. There was a very real stigma attached to adoption in those days, which may have fueled their request, but I suspect that Barbara wanted to ensure that their little girl would never for one moment question who her “real” parents were.

Desperate to find a safe place for the tiny baby, George and the rest of the family agreed to the plan. This was a no-win situation; any choice the grieving widower and father made was almost cer­tain to leave him with regret. I’ve wondered what it was like the day he and his young son said good-bye to the last gift Molly gave to them and what those first weeks were like for Barbara and Louis as the little girl they named Gail joined them and they became a family of three.

George and the rest of the family kept close tabs on Gail’s life in Chicago from afar. It is possible they may have occasionally been in the same room with her at an extended family gathering or two when Barbara and Louis visited family in New York City. How could those gatherings have not been incredibly awkward when everyone who knew the story was simultaneously tiptoeing around the secret while trying somehow to connect with this little girl who was a piece of their hearts?

The fact that Gail appeared well cared for was enough to com­municate to them that she was doing well.

Except she wasn’t OK. Louis was an alcoholic and Barbara the classic codependent. As a result, home was an unpredictable, unsafe place for Gail. Louis had become a father against his will, and he re­minded Gail of it in a million unspoken ways. Barbara overcompen­sated for him, driving her daughter toward a perfectionist mind-set that had at its roots the idea that if only she could get it right some­how, maybe someone would love her.

She couldn’t get it right. Every day was a reminder that she wasn’t good enough, pretty enough—her flaws and imperfections were the unpardonable sin in her home. And if they weren’t for­givable by the people who were supposed to love her most in the world, Gail learned at a young age how to protect herself behind an impenetrable barrier of fear, anger, and unforgiveness.

A product of her era, she headed to college just long enough to have a whirlwind romance and get engaged. It was, perhaps, her hope that she might be worth loving because this person found her lovable.

In the swirl of those wedding plans, the long fuse of regret, lit the day George agreed to relinquish his parental rights to Barbara and Louis, finally exploded in the form of a phone call. He just wanted to see Molly’s baby girl walk down the aisle.

Passing on the Spiritual DNA

In addition to the sense of rejection she experienced in the home in which she was raised, the history-revising revelation of the truth about her origins and the disorientation she was experi­encing over the family she’d lost convinced my mom that the only way she could survive her life was by barricading herself behind a wall of anger and bitterness. I’ve wondered if hiding behind that wall was the wish that she’d never been born.

My mom bragged throughout my childhood about how unfor­giving she was, as if this were the highest virtue to which a person could aspire. Her deep wounds turned her into a very hurtful per­son. She told my sister and me how unattractive we were. She wor­ried endlessly about what people would think of us. She berated us in front of others, hoping, perhaps, that they would recognize that any flaws we had were our own fault and didn’t reflect poorly on her. She repeated what was most familiar to her from her own upbringing, passing it on just as she’d passed on Molly’s blue eyes and George’s curly hair to me.

I spent my childhood doing what I could to hide from my mom’s acid words. There was nothing more that I craved than for­giveness; it was how I experienced love. While I often found myself frustrated that my dad didn’t do more to protect my sister and me from my mom’s hurtful words, his affection for us was an antidote to some of the emotional toxins swirling around our home. God used that longing for love and deep desire to know what was true to draw me to himself when I was a high school student.

Though they were not religiously observant, my Jewish parents were deeply offended by my newfound faith in Jesus the Messiah. While they didn’t disown me, they distanced themselves emotion­ally from their Jesus Freak daughter. I’d always felt distant from them, so the additional separation didn’t punish me as much as they imagined it might have.

I Should Have Told Someone

As I entered adulthood, I realized that in order to grow up in Christ, I needed to forgive—and keep on forgiving—my parents. I looked for a loophole in Jesus’ words: “And when you stand pray­ing, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25). There was no loophole. There was just the truth that forgiveness wasn’t a once and done deal but was an ongoing process that might mean I would have to come back to the same choice whether or not to for­give “seventy times seven” times (Matt. 18:21-22; see niv margin).

With God’s help, I forgave and forgave again. At about point number 387 or so, it started getting easier. Every time I did, I grew in compassion for them, particularly my mom. While we were never close, I experienced genuine affection for them both.

My dad died on his sixty-fourth birthday, and my mom re­sponded the only way she knew now—with additional anger. She was furious that my father had abandoned her and determined that no one would ever do that to her again. A few of her acquaintanc­es told me over the years that they were a little scared of her. She never let them get too close. I understood exactly what they were talking about.

Eleven fairly uneventful years passed after my dad died. My mom, sister, and I were living in different cities, so we maintained the kind of relationship with which my mom was most comfort­able by regular brief Sunday afternoon check-in phone calls and occasional visits.

Then, one Sunday afternoon, my sister and I each got a phone call from my mom that was nearly as monumental as the one my mom received back in 1957. “I think I have pneumonia, and I’m going to the hospital,” she told us in turn. I asked her if she wanted one or both of us to come to south Florida where she was living. She didn’t hesitate for a moment before answering softly, “Yes.”

When we arrived at the hospital, we learned that she didn’t have pneumonia. She had breast cancer that had metastasized to her lungs and bones. She’d known she’d had breast cancer for at least two years and had chosen not to tell anyone or to seek treatment. She gave a few halfhearted answers about why she’d made this de­cision (“I didn’t want them to put a tube down my throat to have surgery”), but they didn’t add up.

As she signed the papers to enter hospice care in the days fol­lowing her terminal diagnosis, she began to express two heart­breaking regrets. “I should have gotten treatment. I should have told someone.”

They were the first regrets I’d ever heard my mom voice.

To be continued on Michelle Van Loon’s blog tomorrow, June 22. 

Taken from If Only by Michelle Van Loon©2014 by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, MO.  Used and reprinted by permission of Publisher.  All rights reserved. Visit our website at www.beaconhillbooks.com to purchase this title.

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  • Michelle Van Loon

    Thank you for sharing this, Ellen!