In my mid-twenties I was offered a job as companion to my friend Richard’s grandmother. She wanted someone to take her to the symphony and the ballet, to read with and talk to her. She lived in an extraordinary house — a white mansion in a park, with apple orchards, a carriage house and tree-lined drive, wild fields of grass. Inside, the house was lovely, cool and quiet. My main memories are of the huge bowl of lavender by the door, and of the remarkable library: original Morris and Rackham books, and vellum-bound miniatures. It must have been from his grandmother that Richard got his acute sense of the magical, of the beautiful and invisible. Both she and her house were anomalies in the Oregon where I grew up. They had the flavor of another time and place altogether.
Her house was torn down seven or eight years ago, after she died. New, expensive homes have grown up in its place. A few such houses had surrounded it when I knew it, giving it some of its mystery as a hidden eddy, a guarded place.
I didn’t take the job; the old woman was too wealthy. My politics, which were serious and strong, included intolerance for wealth. I’m sorry now that I let that ideology stop me — she would have been an interesting companion and teacher. I find myself growing lavender to scent my house and collecting old books, trying to become a guardian of the beautiful and invisible.
Now, at thirty-seven, I begin to see that the large opportunities — the ones I have made the occasion for so much regret — have a way of coming around again. The disciplines I was too lazy, or too ignorant, or too frightened to study twenty years ago I advance on now with passion and joy. The footloose trip to Europe I will take, with luck, years from now when the kids are on their own, with knowledge and experience in my pack, and my wife of many years as companion. I need only the patience to wait, the perception to see an old dream in a new shape.
Last month we ordered pizza for supper. The children were already in their pajamas, and the two oldest, for the first time in memory, didn’t care about going with me to pick it up. Only my three-year-old showed interest, and I promised to take him; but when the time came, he was playing with the others and seemed to have forgotten all about it. Can a father of three still be that dumb? Yep. I left by myself.
Half an hour later, when I brought the pizza to the table, James stared at it and said, “You didn’t take me.” I don’t think I will forget those words, or his small, round face as it began, just slightly, to crumple.
Careers, journeys, great loves come again. That summer night will never come again, nor will the half-hour’s drive we might have taken, the two of us, my little son and I.
Ten years ago, in my last year of journalism school, I found myself on my way to upstate New York to interview the musician Todd Rundgren for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The ease with which I had secured the assignment and Todd’s availability to see me still baffle me. But it was a coup, since he had been a personal inspiration to me, and since I had never written a story for such a large newspaper.
It took hours to find the private airport hangar where he and his band, Utopia, rehearsed. As I dashed through the rain from my car, my tape recorder, notes, and I all got thoroughly soaked. The day went from bad to worse as I flubbed, mumbled, and blushed my way through the interview, quite unprepared for the reality of sitting next to this person whom I held in such high regard. I lost all thought of sharing with Todd the spiritual avenues he’d opened for me through his songs, and of discussing his ideas.
Seven years later my husband and I used his album, “Healing,” in preparation for the birth of our daughter, and during the actual labor. Later, we often settled her into a nap with that music.
Last month, Mike, Amber, and I went to see Todd in a free concert in Fairmount Park. Standing just a few yards from us on the stage, Todd strolled over during a song, glanced my way, looked over again and smiled so broadly I laughed. Ten years of discomfiture over a lost opportunity vanished in a smile.
Cynthia Solt Frame
When I was sixteen, my brother was eighteen and dying of cancer. I never could bring myself to tell him I loved him, or even to say goodbye.
Instead, I dealt with the day-to-day necessities of being second to the oldest in a household of seven. I enclosed myself in my personal struggle in order to avoid his pain.
The night the ambulance came to get him, I lay huddled and afraid in my bed. My head buried underneath my pillow, I tried hard to drown out the noise of the siren and the clanging bell rigged to my brother’s bed. Maybe, if I shut it out, it would simply go away.
A month or two later, when my mother and I stopped in to see him, he lay in the hospital bed, gray and lifeless, his eyes unable to focus. He was leaving us that day, and I knew it. Still, I couldn’t approach the unapproachable, to say the words, “I love you, brother,” nor could I say goodbye. I refused to speak these fragile, yet life-giving words, or even to feel the emotion in my heart.
Through the years, I’ve come to dispel many of my own long-standing fears of darkness and the unknown. I do not want to miss again the opportunity to say, “I love you, brother,” nor do I want to ignore the unavoidable changes we must all openly experience in order to be fully alive — even if only for a moment.
So, for this moment, to you who are listening with your hearts, I offer these words of life: “I love you, brethren.”
Las Vegas, Nevada
When I was a very small child, I lost a heart-shaped ruby ring my parents had given me. The ring, too big for any of my fingers, slipped off while I was playing on a swing. It fell to the ground, right at my feet. Though we looked and looked, we never found it.
For several months, perhaps even years, I waited for my parents to give me another ring, but they did not. I had been given one, and I had lost it, and that was that. There would not be another.
For many years, I thought all things were lost this way. In a careless, unmindful gesture, they slip from our hands, fall in plain view, and simply cannot be retrieved. Opportunity, the moment to advance, must be this way as well. Seize the moment! It’s now or never!
A kind of panic sets in. Is this an opportunity I should not let pass? After all, opportunity is by definition flighty and inconstant and, generally speaking, a one-time-only occurrence. So I have wandered, rather aimlessly, from one opportunity to the next, seizing this and getting a firm hold on that, only to find that each opportunity was not such a good one after all.
By experience, I have discovered that things which are lost are sometimes found again, in a different guise, another form. I, who for years held on to everything as dearly as though it were my childhood’s lost birthstone, have learned to let things go, including the power of “opportunity” to distort my life. From beneath the chaotic heap of endless possibility, this thought emerges: every day is a new opportunity from sunrise to sunset, every hour a sparkling occasion to engage life.
Carol Martel Budinger
San Francisco, California
The lost opportunity that causes me the most pain is the chance to know my younger sister. We were not close when we were growing up, and when I left home for college, we never spent more than an occasional Christmas vacation together at our mother’s house. But in my early twenties, I felt things start to change between us. We began to let go of the past, to share with each other more readily. There was a gradual and subtle easing of the old difficulties we’d had. Perhaps we had stopped vying for our mother’s approval and attention. I’m not really sure what happened, but I began to sense that my sister and I could become friends at last. We wrote to one another more frequently, and often spoke on the telephone. I looked forward to the times we would visit together as adults — on an even footing at last.
Six years ago, my sister attempted suicide. While she was recovering in the hospital, I wrote to ask what had happened to make her want to die; to assure her that, whatever it was, it wouldn’t last forever. I told her I loved her and offered her what help I could. The letter reached the hospital but not my sister, as my mother had already taken her home. Several days later, my sister did kill herself, and my letter was eventually returned to me, unopened and unread.
I missed the opportunity to have easy, close times with my sister — to know her as another woman, and to tell her of my care for her. I can only hope that I’ll remember forever the letter I wrote her.
I caught a stray line from a song recently, “The only regrets that you have are the things that you don’t do. . . .”
The line has stayed with me (though out of the song’s context) as a haunting reminder of my self-perceived failings as a father. Don’t get me wrong; I get all of the major things right. I don’t come home late or loaded, I don’t abuse my children and their mother physically or verbally. On big-ticket items, I get an A+.
But as Dickens wrote, “The sum of life is made up of the trifles.” It’s in the little things, in the piddly crap of everyday life, where we have the opportunity to demonstrate grace, forgiveness, acceptance — the real stuff of love. Like grains of sand in an hourglass come the opportunities to say, “No big deal. Here, you can help me clean it up,” instead of, “I’ve told you a hundred times not to . . . !” The chance to say, “Sure, come on, let’s . . .” when we’re tired, instead of saying, “Some other time, OK?”
I mourn the times I was “too busy” to read a story, to take a walk, to stop and pick up leaves, to wrestle on the floor; too tired and irritable to overlook an accident, to forgive a fault quickly; the times I took a book to the playground instead of digging in the sand and playing on the slide with my little ones. Truly, the regrets I have are the things I didn’t do.
But I’m learning, and my children are still young. My hope, my prayer, is to develop a keener eye for these opportunities, and the ability to react immediately in a positive way. Seconds count, because the instant you’ve shouted about the orange juice on the floor, it’s too late for an understanding word.
Charles W. Dobbs
St. Paul, Minnesota