Season 1, 009: Our moments of painful awareness - often when we feel it is too late to change or make amends
Unforgotten. By Steve Harrison
It's always there wandering in the backstreets of my mind. In idle moments, fragments of woven memories stitched together from old photographs of 'her' and faded childhood impressions meld and become someone I remember.
My mother was taken on a school day, an ordinary day; a day of algebra, geography and metalwork which shaped the contours of that day until, she became no more. That school day became a desperate, misshapen day, unfocused and unformed.
I knew she was ill.
She led in bed for days. No words. No movement. Only glimpses of her blonde, Diana Dors hair style, now limp and drained of it's shiny vibrancy. She wilted and became cold. I lost her. She was locked away in forbidden territory, hidden under a sad sea of blankets and sheets. The glowing coal fire in her bedroom had no one to warm.
Fourteen years old.
Now crushed and cast adrift into an adult world of, 'be seen but not heard,' 'speak when you are spoken to,' and 'keep away from 'that' door,' my emotional compass was compromised and spun out of control. I needed to get close. Skin to skin. Look into her eyes and see life's spark, get past that 'adult' door closed by 'adult' rules. Emotional intelligence was something from a psychology book. No books in this house.
Unable to process.
My fourteen years had given me an incomplete deck of coping cards. I was not equipped to navigate my way through that powerful theatre of emotions that played out during her last days.
Time, was in a hurry to take her. I had all the time in the world to regret my weakness and forgive myself for not being strong enough to open that 'adult ' door and rescue myself.
Married 26 years to a man with a carpenter's calm, yet I still breathe the uneasy air that the women in my family have breathed through generations, communication forced down to whispers, silent looks. I was raised by these women who walked through cautious air every day, air thick and stale, air polluted with molecules of fear. Air that blows words away, a child’s balloon gone. This invisible heaviness, an unseen force field, opposing ends of magnets, oppressive, weighty, immobilizing, sound cannot move through this air, air like quicksand, concrete, air that keeps words captive, jumbled and tossed, knocked about until crumbled.
These women swallowed words whole like blue whales swallow krill, swept back into the throat by the tongue, trapped, krill die, words die, the giant swims on.
It was so long ago, I’ve forgotten what I did to deserve it. Buried it deep, perhaps. Or more likely it was insignificant, anyway. Perhaps, tired of being teased, I’d had a tantrum, designed to let them know how fed up I was. The design, clunky and immature. Whatever I had said or done, awakened a force so strong in Dad, he finally voiced the words I’d so long felt. They had never wanted me.
It was this taboo that created the bond between my parents and my brother: a bond that was not strong enough to hold me too. Once broken, he came to the door of my bedroom, ashamed and asking forgiveness. Expressing regret, to his biggest regret. It was the only power I had ever been offered and I didn’t know how to wield it. I would later regret my denial, and forgive any man, ever after, for any sin. Regret to regret, shame to shame, ashes to ashes.
It turned out to be true. Some years later, an admission that there were money worries. Another child was not an option. Facing unemployment after working since he was a child himself, my Dad resented that I had somehow made my way into the world, as if he’d had nothing to do with that.
He never spoke of the others who hadn’t made it. Those good, obedient ones.
They say there are no coincidences. The very same November morning that I received an email notification for Tanya Shadrick’s recent book excerpt, I also experienced one of my life’s greatest regrets.
Just thinking about it generates a cold sweat as I’m made aware of the first wet rivulet inching down my spine; I become the source, a headwaters for streams of sweat and tears. Sorrowful fingers wander the keyboard’s checkerboard landscape and I wonder if there’s sufficient letters to type the words I’m hunting; can I summon them?
My stomach growls, not from hunger, but from that incessant gnawing of knowledge I’ve done something irreparable. In times of distress an immediate loss of appetite ensues as I enter a state feeling less human…something less likeable, less recognisable. A zoetrope of thoughts flashes an incessant reminder of my regret.
The very word, regret, implies an occurrence from which there’s no recovery and that is an agony. I blame my thinking for releasing its leash on insecurities; the tight rein on demons was loosened - their freedom lashed out with words deadlier than any weapon.
What did I do or say, you may wonder? I destroyed something most rare and exquisite, a unicorn manifest as human. Its decent nature shone brilliantly in any light; a gentle creature who stood patiently for me to come closer.
Great tenderness arose from the heart I’d forgotten, coming back to me in great waves, new and fresh. I’d been lifted into that world I’d only glimpsed at from the distance of dreams and faced an opportunity for new beginnings through a narrow portal, just wide enough to enter.
Almost there and I crashed, my words destroying the very thing I held so dear.
I face ultimate regret.
I have been thinking about regrets. I have many feelings - anger, frustration, grief - but regret isn't a massive one. When I was young, I sought out adventures. I made a point of saying yes. When I first told people about my cancer diagnosis, one friend confessed that her immediate thought was "Thank God she's done so much travelling".
I've been lucky. I married the right man. I have two children, who are becoming adults I enjoy spending time with. I had a satisfying career. I could have had more, but I could easily have had less. I sometimes wonder how things might have been, but they are idle thoughts, not regrets.
The regrets I do have are small but sharp. Here's one:
I was a student. One of my great aunts was ill. Seriously ill. I bought a get well card - it had snowdrops on it, her favourite flower. The card sat on a shelf in my room for days. My aunt died. I hadn't sent the card.
I told myself it didn't matter too much, I wasn't a big part of my aunt's life.
The next time I saw my mother, she gave me the jewellery that my aunt had wanted me to have. It wasn't much, nothing valuable, but she'd worn it when she was my grandmother's bridesmaid, and she wanted me to have it, as the only granddaughter.
I regret being careless, and thoughtless, and selfish. I still regret it - it still hurts me. And I wish I could say that that incident changed me, but it took years of similar missed opportunities for me to realise that it really doesn't take much to give someone a moment of pleasure, of feeling cared for. That we should take every opportunity to be kind.
Hi Tanya, I appreciate once again that you have left these prompts open for so long.
Here is my experience.
They’ve gone, packed up and left and it is all my doing. But good riddance I say, they were nothing but trouble in the end.
They materialised many moons ago and made themselves quite at home, seemingly settling in for the long haul. It was almost as if they immediately recognized that they had discovered somewhere worth making their own.
It wasn’t so bad in the early days, they were quiet, laying low and biding their time for when they would take over, run the place, own the space.
As time tramped on, their numbers grew as they stealthily sought out others of a similar ilk. Trouble was that they never had to look too far. As they gained momentum, they began to make themselves known. Subtlety at first, almost by invitation really, innocently encouraged to stay awhile; but back then they read the room and knew when to leave.
If they had left it at that, things might have been different, but they didn’t. They began to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye, refusing to leave when asked, loitering in the shadows reluctant to retire. Turning up randomly, unannounced and unbidden, unperturbed by their own insensitivities. Muscling in at every opportunity, deafeningly derisive and demanding. There wasn’t a moment’s peace; it was traumatic and tortuous.
Oh, they really ruled the roost, until the day dawned when I precisely perceived their power, their persistence to create chaos and commotion, despondency and depression and the decision was made.
In that very instant I just knew. I knew it couldn’t happen overnight, I knew it would take time and tenacity, but I knew I could do it. Someone had to leave, and I knew it wasn’t going to be me.
Regret was passed around easily in my family. I don’t think I’d be around if my parents and grandparents had had access to the time machine. Myself? I could have made different choices as well. I could have been braver and bolder, and my life would have been different. Would I have like it more? Or would I still wonder “what if”? It’s true that I’ve been a drifter; following the downstream of life with very little defiance. Taking opportunities that were given to me; but never seeking them, never being strong enough to single-mindedly follow an aspiration. Maybe I didn’t have any aspirations apart from one for safety, however fragile and illusionary it was. Knowing what you want beyond safety is a gift. I had to take a long and winding road to get that knowledge and I’m still not sure if that’s the right one. But I wont regret being mistaken yet again as I know I had a go at it and did what I could.
Thanks for sharing another powerful piece of your writing. I try not to have regrets, as there is little you can do to change the past once what's done is done. But this is a regret that I didn't organise my mind in time to ask for an apology for our family. Thanks as always for your encouragement to share our stories.
“It will be informal,” they said.
You could say the white Formica tables had the air of an old school canteen about them. But there was nothing informal as the coroner entered the courtroom, pronouncing, “All rise”.
Proceedings began. The driver took the stand. He avoided our gaze and mumbled well-rehearsed words. Bubbles boiled in my stomach. The judge asked whether there were any questions. I glanced at my Mum and sister before releasing the grip of my hand from theirs. Slowly, I stood. My mouth, as dry as sandpaper, was now level with the microphone. The room was silent. I had no idea what I was going to say. How can you articulate everything you want to vocalise to the person who took away a part of your very being?
All I wanted was for him to acknowledge us. To have some respect for the family that was no longer four, but three.
To buy me some time, I asked the lame question, “Did you call the ambulance?”. At least he turned to look at us now. The succinct reply came.
I thanked him, but I had to know, “Was Dad dead when you attended to him?”.
Another single-word answer. “Yes”.
I was trying to process the cold comfort that at least Dad hadn’t suffered. I sat down as a whirlwind continued to swirl around in my head.
No, the driver hadn’t premeditated Dad’s death. He hadn’t gone out to kill him that day. But why hadn’t he seen him crossing the road? He couldn’t explain. And yes, I am sure he suffers daily, too.
My regret? I wished I had asked the driver to say sorry. To honour my Dad’s life. And to apologise for the gaping hole that he left in ours.
Thank you Tanya for the editing, it now has an interesting flow and shape which adds to it's effect. Great mentoring session, loved it. I hope to contribute more to the shared story archive. Thanks for sharing. Steve.
“Remember how this feels.”
The last words she said to my face.
Said with compassion and love, but knowing how deeply both sides of the sword would cut me. She meant ‘learn from this’.
She meant ‘feel my love but feel my anger’.
The bright sunshine of a Queensland winter streaming through the departure lounge on her perfect skin. Light as bright and warm as the English summer I was returning to without her, because I had lied. I’d lied to immigration and I’d lied about that to her. A lie I had desperately tried to turn into a truth, because everything else between us was a pure and powerful truth. She was the one for me and I was the one for her, and we’d become bonded together like a yin and yang. We both knew how that felt.
But my lie was like the lone prop holding up an ancient mine-shaft; it was rotten and fragile and it was always going to be when, not if, it would splinter and collapse.
It felt like the end. The end of everything that mattered and the end of everything that I had cared about - not just for four years - everything I would ever care about. The end of something perfect and irreplaceable, like watching your home be consumed by a fire.
The love is still real. It hasn’t abated or withered or slipped away or been bettered or replaced.
We still speak most months. Her winter mornings are my summer nights, and we laugh and care and reassure and help and we have not forgotten.
She only ever said it once, because she knew that was enough.
It’s down to the last wire so these are now coming at the very last minute. A lot has been going on inside my head even if my body hasn’t been able to sit down and write as much or as often as I’d wish. I’m not sure this offering is about regret as such—more like just a thought if things had been different. Because I’ve lived too many wonderful things to really live with regret, and every choice I’ve made has led me to where I needed to be.
Listening to cat tongue on fur
my own breath, warm
beneath a blanket pile
and staring at the sidewalk light’s faint glow
around the edge of the window shade
I think of all the planes ferries and trains I’ve ridden
I remember my suite of rooms at Oxford
that clifftop Aegean sunset
an icy Coke chasing bitter warm Sardinian beer.
These are not small things
that I remember here alone in the dark:
I dreamed them as a young girl and
lived them true as a young woman, I muse
as I shift onto my left side.
These are not small things but
it’s also true that the cats do not minister
to my poorly spine and hips.
Perhaps if I had dallied in my twenties
lusted and loved
instead of living inside books.
But I was determined to be
the only one I’d need. Perhaps
there would be a strong shoulder now if…
But I didn’t know I’d lose my body
so soon or so fast.