Paying Attention and Living Without Regret
The news of Nora Ephron’s death as a result of leukemia was such a shock. I keep thinking what a terrible loss. She was such a brilliant writer and director. She was also close to my age – just one day short of a year my junior. We grew up at the same time and faced the same obstacles women of our generation faced. She overcame those obstacles so well, and the rest of us greatly admired her for that.
Her death made me focus more on my current stage of life and what is happening to the people around me. Three of my dear friends are undergoing cancer treatments, a man I first knew as slim and robust is now overweight and facing surgery for an aneurism, a girlfriend from my high school days is scheduled to have a hip replaced, and my husband, who is three years older than I, can’t walk more than a few blocks without complaining that his back hurts.
So where am I going with this? I think you know. It has to do with paying attention and living a life without regret. Regret has come up for me a lot in the last few weeks – triggered by what my friends are going through now, and looking back at my many friends and relatives who have died in the last thirty years.
One of my dearest friends died of breast cancer while we were in our forties. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think about her. I felt so cheated and angry and such a deep sadness and regret when I heard the news of her death. She was too young; probably why her doctor kept saying, “let’s just watch it,” for two years before admitting her lump was serious business.
I’m not complaining about the doctor for his lax treatment – finding breast cancer in a woman in her forties wasn’t very common in the 1980s. What I regret is how I handled the diagnosis and my friend’s slow decline. She had surgery and radiation and chemotherapy and none of it worked because her diagnosis and treatment started too late in the development of her disease. And through it all, I never believed she would die. I just couldn’t grasp it. Death was reserved for old people.
So I was the same friend I had always been – we saw each other with our husbands occasionally because we lived quite far from each other, and we talked just a little more often than that. After all, we were young. We had plenty of time. Why should we worry about not seeing each other any more?
Soon before she died she called me from the hospital and we made a date to get together for dinner. She assured me she’d be well enough by then. And I believed her. Did I even get that she was in such serious condition she needed hospitalization? Did I get moving immediately and go visit her? No. I thought, I’ll be seeing her in three weeks and all would be well.
Well, guess what? Just about three weeks later I got a call that she was dead. I still think about that. I still think about how I didn’t take this person’s life seriously enough. I still think that I wasn’t a good enough friend to her while she was still alive.
So what do we do with our regret? Certainly I cannot have my friend back. Sure, I’ve done a number of breast cancer events – including the first ever Avon 3-day 60 mile walk – and given many donations in her memory, but that does little to assuage my feelings.
The only thing I think I can do now is be here for the friends who need me now, because before I know it – and it happens more and more often in the stage of life I’m in now – they’ll be gone. Regret has taught me we don’t have a lot of chances to treat the people we love with care and respect and gentleness. So we better take the chances we have right now.
Madeline Sharples has worked most of her life as a technical writer and editor, grant writer, and proposal manager. She fell in love with poetry and creative writing in grade school and decided to fulfill her dreams of being a professional writer later in her life. Madeline is the author of Leaving the Hall Light On, a memoir about how she and her family survived her older son’s suicide, which resulted from his long struggle with bipolar disorder. She and her husband of 40 years live in Manhattan Beach, CA.
Tags: aging, death awareness, friendship, grief