The guilt of regret can prolong grief. Forgiving oneself allows us to feel joy when we remember our loved ones.
I stood in the doorway of his hospital room and froze. He was lying on a bed in the intensive care unit with what looked like hundreds of tubes going into and out of his thin body. He was unconscious and I knew he was dying. But at eight-years-old, I was too shocked by what I was seeing to do anything but stand in the doorway and cry.
A nurse in the hallway saw me crying and stopped near the doorway. I wanted to hide my tears but my fear and the uncertainty about my world paralyzed me. She looked at me and said, “Don’t worry; Grandpa’s just sleeping.” The nurse’s words pierced my soul. Even at eight years old, I understood perfectly that life is finite and that my grandfather’s life was reaching that finality. To me, she had just implied that I don’t know the difference between sleeping and dying. Worse, with her words, she tried to give me hope I knew didn’t exist.
As an adult, I understand the nurse was trying to console me, but as a child, I wanted to explode with rage. I said nothing to her out loud, but inside, I wanted to exclaim, “I’m young but not stupid! I know that he’s dying, and you’re evil for lying to me and trying to make me believe otherwise!”
The words never came out of my mouth . . .
Nor did I go into my grandpa’s hospital room. I never held his hand and told him that I loved him. I never thanked him for playing card games with me. I never thanked him for his beautiful paintings, poems, and stories. I never said goodbye, even though I was given a clear chance to do so.
About half an hour before I stood in that doorway, my family and I were given instructions for visiting patients in the intensive care unit. We were told to wear blue gowns and blue head and shoe coverings in the patient’s room. We were to go in one at a time and spend no more than 10 minutes each. We all put on what we were given and took turns visiting my grandfather. My mother went in first, and I waited.
When it was my turn, the hospital corridor felt long and cold as I was walked toward my grandfather’s room. I was eight, and I was taking the longest walk of my life. But when I ran out of that doorway minutes after arriving, crying, knowing that I was about to lose my grandpa, the corridor seemed even longer, even colder.
I was running to my mother who was in the waiting room. I knew she could comfort me but I wiped away my own tears; I felt she shouldn’t have to comfort me while she was grieving. My red eyes betrayed me when I looked at her. She hugged me close and said, “It’s OK if you want to cry. That’s what people come here for.” My mother always knew what to say. I let myself cry bitter tears as I hugged my mother and sat in her lap like a baby. I had no clear thoughts; just a feeling of loss that I thought would never be fully healed.
The doctor came to see us in the waiting room and told my mother that things weren’t looking good. He gave a long explanation about what was happening to my grandfather, but all I heard was this: “If he survives, he will be in a wheelchair for the rest of his short life.” I didn’t want my grandfather to suffer any more than he already had. But I was only eight and I wanted my grandpa to see me grow. Yet, as young as I was, I knew that for him to die now, while he was peaceful, would be the best for him.
I went home and thought about my grandfather and all the beautiful things he created. Even at eight, I knew he was special. He was the nicest, most patient person I had ever met. He was a short, thin man, who wore glasses and who had a permanent cigarette in his hand, and a radio tuned in to the soccer game next to his ear.
Before he went blind, he created beautiful paintings, which still grace the walls of my mother’s home. He wrote poems and short stories and even had a book published. My memories of him only span the time after he lost his vision. I remember watching him write on this strange clipboard that had what looked like two rulers, in order to keep his writing neat, since he couldn’t see what he was writing. Still, you could barely recognize any letters. I remember him dictating his stories to my brother, who would capture their wonders on paper.
To a creative person who painted and wrote before the dawn of dictation technology, losing eyesight was tragic. A visual artist’s professional life was over if he couldn’t see. But my grandfather was never bitter. He continued to be my mother’s confidant and advisor, and he still told his stories. He was never sorry for himself. He just lived life. I never saw him lose his patience or his kindness.
For weeks, I thought about my grandpa and regretted not having gone into that hospital room, held his hand, and told him that I loved him. And then the phone call came. I was lying in bed—in that in-between dreaming and waking stage—when I heard my grandmother speaking on the phone. Grandpa had passed away the previous night. I was filled with a mix of raw emotions—anger, grief, and regret—too intertwined and wildly felt for a child to control or know how to use.
My grandfather was dead and I had not said goodbye. I wondered if my mother had said all that she wanted to say to him; if she had told him how much she loved and admired him. If she had done all the things I would regret not doing. I had not told him I loved him. I had not told him I admired him. I threw my pillow against the wall and punched my mattress, and fell onto the floor and cried. I cried until I felt I had no tears left.
When I finally calmed myself down and left my room, my grandmother told me the news. I nodded but didn’t tell her I had heard her on the phone earlier. I didn’t think I could control the wild tangle of emotions all over again.
My last memory of this amazing man was that I did not do what I should have done. And that memory and regret haunted me for ten years. For ten years, I felt guilty for not going into that room. For ten years, I regretted not telling my grandfather how much he meant to me. For ten years, I grieved the loss of someone with whom I could have been so much kinder, with whom I should have spent more time.
I did not forgive myself for my inaction until I was eighteen, and I came to that forgiveness in an unexpected way: when I was writing a final, timed essay for a first-year college English course.
We were given a prompt that read: “If I had only known then what I know now…” When I read those words, I remembered standing in that doorway so clearly that I felt as if I was there again. I would have walked into that room and said my goodbye.
But I couldn’t do that now. All I could do was write my timed essay in class in his honour and tell at least one person that I loved this man and that he was special. As I wrote my essay, I came to understand there was a reason I didn’t go into that room. Thus, I ended my essay:
Ten years later, I realize that I was just an eight-year-old, scared child. I forgive myself for not knowing then how to deal with a situation I found terrifying. I know that somewhere in that beautiful blue sky my grandfather sometimes captured in his paintings, he’s looking down at me, knowing how much I love and admire him.
It was the most emotionally raw essay I had ever written. My teacher, who was known at the college for never giving anyone an “A” grade—and who hadn’t given me one up to that point—gave me an “A” on the essay. I’m not sure why.
Perhaps it’s because, with my essay at age 18, I finally accomplished what I couldn’t have done at age eight: I expressed, with clarity and confidence, what my grandfather had meant to me. Today, 26 years later, I’m telling the world.
Photo courtesy of the author.