An overheard conversation brought to mind a deeply regrettable goodbye. The memory stings, as such memories do; but unlike past times when I have buckled, winced, and looked away at the memory, I wanted this time to have compassion in the recalling. I wonder if we all need this: to return to regrets with the practiced eye of self-compassion.
After all, I was 23 years old at the time—barely a fully functioning adult, even if I did already have a toddler and was bearing the cumulative weight of a five-year emotionally abusive marriage. It was late 1993 and Nana, my maternal grandmother, had for two years been battling cancer that had overtaken her colon, eventually conceding more and more ground in the battle. While she’d lived for months in my parents’ home under the constant care of my mom, her end-of-life condition advanced to the point she could no longer stay in-home. She was admitted to a care facility a few miles away.
The morning she was admitted, I took a sliver of time to visit her on my way to work at our local library. I thought Nana would be at the nursing home for several days in which I could visit and spend time with her. In recent months at my parents’, after a hospital-style bed was moved into her space and she lay in it all day, her body defeated but her spirit peaceful—I had gone to her. We shared intimate, treasured moments as I clipped her fingernails or brushed her hair, discussing big questions as well as minutiae.
But when I saw her at the care facility that morning, she was anything but peaceful. She was deathly afraid. Not afraid of death—but afraid of the place she found herself in. The nursing home was as depressing as nursing homes can sometimes be, and the unfamiliarity and heavy-spiritedness of the place was evident to her even from the set-off room she shared (as I recall) with a woman ensconced like a caterpillar in a silent, motionless cocoon of blankets and drugs. My grandmother clung to my hands and arms and begged me to take her home. She could not stay there. It was heartbreaking—her pleading—so I steeled my heart against it, something I’d grown practiced at during those years. I acted cheery: “Everything is going to be okay. You don’t need to be afraid. I will be back soon.”
For my part, I worried. But mind you, not about her—not at that moment. I worried that I was going to be late to work. I can imagine how I looked at that time: my hair, lipstick, and clothing flawless. Because I was dedicated to perfection—perfect appearance, perfect performance, perfect persona. In those years it was how I bore the shame of what my life had become: by trying to project an image not only of normalcy, but of excellence. I’m sure I didn’t mention to work colleagues that Nana had gone to a nursing home, or that I’d seen her there that very morning. My veneer of perfection was too polished. I would have been laser-focused on doing my job well. And not because the stakes were high. I was not a foreign diplomat resolving world crises; I was checking out books and CDs to library patrons on their way out of story time! Yet I rarely showed vulnerability for fear it would expose fault lines threatening to rupture if things happened to move.
So as my grandmother lay with terror in her eyes, the psychological and emotional pain of her experience eclipsing even the profound, perpetual discomfort of her body—she begged me not to leave. But instead of snapping myself awake, realizing what was important and what was not, I told her I needed to get to work. As she grew ever more agitated, realizing she would be abandoned to that frightening place, clinging more tenaciously to me and looking at me through beleaguered eyes, I kissed her head and told her I loved her. I just had to get to work.
Then I turned and left her that way, that day—which was the last time I saw her, because she died that night. Fortunately, not alone. My dad stayed with her much of the evening, saying goodbye shortly before she passed mildly in her sleep.
I look back on that morning’s decision with stinging, needling, scalding, withering regret. There are many life-actions I survey with regret, times for which I desperately covet a do-over. But often these times were complicated, involving whole strands of events and decisions, like misshapen beads, implicated in the one blaring regret. Seldomly do they involve such split-second, one-time decisions that proved impossible to accept over the course of a lifetime. What would it have cost for me to call in to work that day, to say I could not make it? It would have cost nothing, truly. My co-workers would have covered, and gladly. And even if things were harried at work in my absence, it was a library, for heaven’s sake. There was ample margin for harried-ness. Yet declining to go in to work is not what I did. It took me years to fully acknowledge the wrong choice.
Yet as I attempt to reflect on the memory with self-compassion, I see I was doing the only thing I knew how to do at the time. I was being “perfect” and responsible—showing up to work not a minute late. It was what I had come to expect of myself—and what my hyper-critical husband expected of me; his voice never far from my ear. I exiled self-awareness throughout that whole period because shedding light on the turmoil in my heart and soul was too risky. Denial and darkness felt safer.
How do we forgive ourselves such scathing, regretted missteps? I think in the same way we forgive others the wrongs against us or against people we love. We attempt to rise like birds above the scene, taking in more and more of the scope. We invite a broader view, a more informed perspective, a view beyond our nose-to-nose myopia where we cannot see ourselves or the problem. As I have said elsewhere, ethical action is all about clear seeing. And when we cannot see a situation clearly because we are simply too close, or our sight too skewed by illusion, addiction, social programming, or something else, we cannot make good choices. Similarly, when we cannot view the choices of others in a clear way, because of anger and resentment, visceral hurt, or prejudice, we cannot assess their actions clearly, and we cannot forgive.
It takes time to gain distance in a challenging situation, and time to forgive ourselves and others, to achieve the expansive perspective needed for compassion. It takes time to step-by-step back away.
From my perspective as a middle-aged woman who now has a daughter significantly older than I was when I left Nana alone at that nursing home, I see a young woman drowning and scared and trying her best to keep her nose above water. Part of her survival technique was to hold everything together that she could control, in seemingly perfect symmetry. Things like being responsible and admired at work. I see a woman who was afraid of how her husband would react if she “blew off” work, and the pain of that and every other angry reaction coming in blasting, enervating succession. I see a young brain so overwhelmed with confusion and self-doubt and trauma, so myopic, that it could not take in the experience of my terrorized grandmother right in front of me.
I try to have this kind of compassion for others, even those who have hurt me tremendously, and sometimes I succeed. This kind of compassion should also extend to ourselves.
This day, offer yourself compassion.
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