For nearly two years I have been communicating with a group of writers through facebook, email, blogs, and on-line message boards, and this weekend I was finally going to have a chance to meet many of them in person at a book release party for Gae Polisner (check her out here) on Long Island. She had been promoting this event for months, and I was really looking forward to meeting her and the many people I had formed virtual friendships with over the past year. So much so that I was willing to make the two-hour drive, through the busiest parts of I-95, alone, just to be there.
I was about an hour into the trip, when my cell phone rang. I hate cell phones, and only have one for emergencies, so when it went off, I knew something was wrong. It was my wife, telling me that my dad was experiencing some sort of memory problem, and was being brought to the emergency room. She assured me that other than the memory loss, he seemed fine, and that they were just going to bring him in as a precaution.
“I’m not sure what you should do,” my wife said. “But I thought you would want to know.”
I knew what I should do –in fact I had already exited the highway as we were talking - but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. What I wanted was to be in Long Island, sipping wine and shaking hands with my sparkly new friends, but I knew I had to forgo the book signing and head to the hospital.
I’m happy to say my dad is fine. By the time I got there (actually, I beat them to the hospital) he was only a little confused, and slightly concerned, but other than that, he was his normal old self: teasing my mom, flirting with the nurses, insisting that I shouldn’t have come…
But I knew I had to. And I’m glad I did – yet– I can’t deny that I was very disappointed at missing all the fun back on Long Island. I know I made the right decision, but I also know that it cost me a good time. The thing is, though, I've learned from experience that fun is fleeting, while regret lasts forever. And in my opinion, the source of all regret are the decisions we make, or don't make.
I won’t even attempt to venture a guess as to how many decisions one makes in a typical week, never mind a lifetime, but it’s got to be in the thousands. Everything, from choosing between paper or plastic, chicken or beef, or even chemo or surgery, requires a decision. And not to get too philosophical, but EVERY decision has the potential to become a major decision. The clothes we wear, the route we take to work, and the radio station we listen to, can all have a huge impact on the rest of our day, or even our lives. Of course we can’t live our lives worrying about the implications of every decision, and frankly, I don’t even get too bent out of shape over the bad ones. But there is one, out of the hundreds of thousands of decisions I have made, that I truly regret.
That’s not to say I’ve never made a poor decision, I do that on a daily basis. And I’ve even made some that have had lasting consequences, like the night I decided to hang up on my brother after he called me at 3:00 a.m. from New Orleans looking for a funny joke to tell the loud group I could hear partying behind him. I told him he was a joke, and promptly hung up.
Bad decision, as those were the last words I would ever say to him, since he died the next day. But I don’t regret it. For one thing, it was sort of funny. And another, it was real. Had I known it was the last time we would talk, who knows what sort of mushy stuff might have come out of my mouth.
Another seemingly safe decision over pizza toppings resulted in a horrific car accident that nearly killed my young nephew. Had I not wanted white clam pizza, we would have ordered from the place that delivered, instead of sending my nephew and his son to pick it up from another place, where they wound up getting hit head-on by a drunk driver. But again, I don’t blame myself. Logically I know that the tragic chain of events that put everyone in the exact spot at that exact time were way beyond my immediete influence.
But I did have full control over the actions that led to my lasting regret. It happened over twenty years ago. I was a senior in high school, and had just come home from getting fitted for my tux for the prom when I got the horrible news that my godfather, and everyone’s favorite person, George, had suddenly passed away. It was very tragic and unexpected and horrible on every level – but my response to it was even more horrible. I’d like to think my initial reaction was one of remorse or shock or sadness. But I can’t be sure, because all I clearly remember are my next thoughts, which were selfishly about how this was going to affect the prom.
And of course, the wake was scheduled for the same night, with the funeral the following day – traditionally the Prom Picnic as Sherwood Island. Again, let me repeat that George was one of my favorite people. The life of the party, the heart of the family, the zip in our doodah. My decision should have been a no-brainer. Honoring the legacy of a well-loved relative certainly takes precedence over the overwrought urgency of a stupid prom. But I was conflicted. Okay, 40-year old me is claiming I was conflicted, but 17-year old me was probably much more concerned with missing out on the prom than making the wake. Which is why “he” jumped at my mom’s suggestion to skip the wake and go to the prom, so long as I made the funeral the next day. Which I did. Barely.
Basically I made an appearance. I left my friends back at the hotel we had booked, sat anxiously through the church service, hugged and kissed everyone I could find, and then rushed off for the beach. I skipped the graveside service, the burial, and the repast to go party with my pals. And the thing is, I can’t recall a single moment from that day, or the prom the night before – I’m sure all the Haffenreffer 40 ouncers didn’t help, but mostly it’s because one high school event or party is just like the next. They all blend together. But I only have one family, and one Cousin George, and I should have been together with them.
And I’ve regretted it ever since. Twenty years of guilt over something I didn't do. So when that call came the other night, I knew what I had to do. I had to pass up a good time with my friends to be with my family during a tough one. And even though I had a feeling it was a false alarm, and that my presence wasn’t really needed, I still needed to be there. Decisions are easy to make – like the Seinfeld episode on reservations, any monkey can take one, it’s holding them that matters, and it’s how you handle the consequences of your decisions that counts. And personally, I would much rather deal with a short-lived disappointment than live with long-term regret.