It was a hot summer afternoon at grandma’s house when Mitch reached into his backpack with a subtle, almost mischievous smile, then retrieved my swimsuit. He knew I always forgot to bring my trunks so he went into my bedroom and packed them for me. “Dad, here’s your swimsuit.” Then, with a soft voice, he said, “Will you swim with me?” I chuckled briefly and then, quite unexpectedly, my heart melted as I saw my son’s tender face that seemed to say, “Dad, I don’t have much time.” Then, a lump filled my throat as I thought of the many times he wanted to swim with me and I came unprepared. In the most tender, almost apologetic tone I said, “Mitch, I would love to swim with you.”
We spent the better half of the afternoon playing “Super Shark” and a handful of other games we made up over the years. It was a tender time and a memory I hold dear to my broken heart.
I didn’t know how to be a dad – and I always felt like I was making things up and stumbling more than making good strides. My youth was complicated and I never had a day-to-day role model to emulate – so I didn’t really know what real fatherhood looked like. My biological father was a good, loving man but I only saw him for a month during the summer. The man I grew up with was angry at the world and especially angry with me, for some reason. My dad taught me how to love, but my drunken step-father (at the time), taught me how it felt to be isolated and despised. I learned to flinch, not flex and grow in confidence.
Because I felt the deep pain of rejection as a child, I never wanted my children to feel any part of what I experienced, so I did my best to give them what I wished I had. Sometimes I wonder if little Mitch wanted to swim with me because he knew I would scoop him up in my arms and hug and kiss him, all the time.
So there I was splashing around in the pool with my son. By this time, I knew Mitchell’s heart was failing him and it had only been a few months since we learned his heart function was on a steep and unexpected decline. Not a day passed that I didn’t wonder and worry if we were doing enough. We consulted with his doctors and tried medicines that were thought to stabilize his rapid heart decline. Everything failed. We did all that we knew to do and yet we couldn’t save him. When I look back on that labyrinth of decisions with unknowable outcomes, I am tempted to feel regret.
A few weeks ago, Natalie and I were asked to share some of our thoughts to a group of parents who have children with the same disease Mitch had: Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. One of the panel questions was about making decisions and how to keep from looking back and wondering if they should have done something different. I appreciated that question because I understood it on a very personal level.
My response was “No matter what you do in life, you’re going to make mistakes and regret is inevitable. That is part of being human.” I suggested, “Perhaps we’re better served if we worry less about life’s inevitable regrets and spend our energy doing things that will limit the depth and severity of regret.” I believe if we spend time and energy focusing on the things we truly value, we will stumble, but we won’t stumble far. Our regrets are more likely to feel like bruises, rather than broken legs.
I mentioned in an earlier post that my son’s journey has taught me to turn regret into resolve. I discovered that regret is inevitable, but resolve is a choice.
Do I have regrets? I have a million of them. But, I have a million more resolves.
As long as I am human I will experience regret; the best way to live with them, as far as I can tell, is to know what I value and always do my best. That is how I've learned to live with inevitable regrets.