Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Regrets, I've Had A Few...

If you're a Sinatra aficionado, you know how the rest of that line goes.

I mentioned the idea of living life without regret in a post a while back. It's something I'm pretty passionate about. I truly believe that you can't take one second of life for granted. That's not to say that I don't forget to do things that I want to do, or that I don't waste time engaged in pointless activities. It's more about letting the little things go and concentrating on what's really important in your life, like the people you care about.

I was considering this today after reading an article in our local newspaper. It was about a little girl who died of cancer several years ago. Make A Wish Foundation had sent her to Disney World shortly before her death. After she died, her father started a non-profit foundation called Rebels For A Cause to raise funds for Make A Wish.

I've been donating to Make A Wish Foundation since I was in high school. I had friend who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease when we were sophomores and they sent she and her family to Disney World as well. Not long afterward, my friend Mary lost her battle. She was 17 years old.

That is what brings me to the subject of regret today. I knew that Mary was ill before she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's. We were in a few classes together and taking driver's ed. at the same time, so I saw her every day. She told me she had a doctor's appointment one day and would be missing driver's ed, which was after school. She was hoping she would miss classwork, and not actual driving, because she was so excited to drive. Thinking back, I'm not sure she ever returned to school. Her illness was advanced and she started chemotherapy right away.

Another friend of mine, Jen, lived a few houses down from Mary and saw her once in a while during that time. She would tell me that Mary said to tell me "Hi" and I'd tell her to say "Hi" back for me. I wanted to stop by or call her, but I just didn't know what to say. I even started a few letters, but I couldn't get past "Dear Mary". I didn't have the words back then.

One Friday night, some friends and I went to the varsity football game at school. We were hanging around and joking and laughing when I spotted Mary standing with Jen and some other kids near the concession stand. She was nearly unrecognizable as she had lost so much weight. She had been thin to begin with, but she was shockingly thin at that point. She hadn't been looking in my direction so I was fairly certain she hadn't seen me. Part of me wanted to go talk to her, but part of me wanted to avoid her altogether. I couldn't think of a thing to say to her because, in a way, I felt guilty that she was so sick and I was healthy. It was like survivors guilt, I suppose. I also felt that if I didn't see her so ill, it wouldn't be true. I avoided her for a while, telling myself that I would come up with something to say if I thought about it long enough. Before that happened, she left. The next time I saw Mary was the following spring at her funeral.

Jen stopped me in the parking lot at the funeral home the night some classmates and I came to pay our respects. She warned me that I would be shocked by Mary's appearance. She told me that she was going to look thinner than the last time I saw her and that she had lost all her hair. She was laid out with a hat on, Jen said, at Mary's own request.

I told Jen about the night at the football game, and how I had seen them there but had been unable to talk to Mary. "She knew," Jen said. "And she understood."

That happened in 1985. I think of Mary often, especially when I make a donation to Make A Wish Foundation and I will forever regret that I didn't talk to her when I had the chance. It's a lesson I learned the hard way at a friend's expense as well as my own.


Purple Flowers said...

You have expressed something that many of us experienced. I too, knew a girl in the neighborhood. When she was a Junior in HS, and I a Sophmore, she died of the same disease as Mary's. I never went to see her when she was sick because I didn't know what to say. As an awkward 14 yr old, was I going to tell her the fun I was having? No. So I didn't say anything at all. And she died. I often think of Barbara with the auburn hair, fair skin and beautiful singing voice. I am sure she is singing somewhere beautiful. I just wish I was brave enough to have said goodbye to her.

L.B. said...

Touching story, Willoughby. Thanks for sharing.

I once almost encountered that situation. My grandfather was quite ill, bedridden at an uncle's house about 45 minutes away. It was '97 and my schedule was so busy with school and volunteer work and actual work that I just did not have time to peel away and do anything. Weeks passed and his condition did not improve but in fact got worse. I believe everyone from the extended family had gone to visit him but me. He had asked about me as well. I got know him well in 93 after I moved to Mexico and lived with him and my grandmother and a couple of aunts. I felt guilty that I hadn't gone but didn't really expect anything to happen to him. So I made time one day to go visit him and it was a pleasant visit, despite seeing him in his condition (he was on oxygen, looked pretty frail).

He died the next day.

I don't know what I would have done had I not gone to see him, to essentially say goodbye to him. It was a rough time for the family (compounded by my grandmother's death three years later) but I had some personal closure that could have become a lifetime of guilt.

Denise said...

Thanks for visiting my blog. Great story, hits home

5thsister said...

Our region has our own touching Make a Wish story. This young girl galvanized the community and money is still being raised, this day in her honor. Please take the time to visit the following links:

abby jenkins said...

Wow Willoughby. That is the best 101 post ever.

My old boyfriend lost his father to a heart attack when we had just broken up. His father was 42, I was 22. I had not experienced much loss at that point in my life and did not know how to react. I always felt I would say the wrong thing. I distinctly remember cringing when I said something as banal as "I'm dying to go to..." because I was super sensitive about saying the wrong thing. Now, many years later, that boyfriend died in the twin towers on 9/11 and I've lost many, been my mother's caregiver at 32, trained as a hospice volunteer at 40. I guess I'm seasoned and I have learned one thing. You just have to show up. Just show up, to be there anyway you can. Send an email. A post card. A phone call. Make a meal. Share a joke. When people are dying is when they need us the most. If I had one wish to make it would be that when I am leaving this world I am surrounded by love and life and all my friends and family as I make my journey on.

It's gonna happen to all of us. Live and Die with No regrets!

abby jenkins said...

and while you're at it check out this kid. Killian Mansfield. Become his fan on facebook. Buy his fundraising CD. He can show you the way.