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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Letting go of my parents... And of my regrets

It's September, the month my mother was born, the month my parents were married, and the month they each passed away - on the same day, two years apart.

My mother has been gone almost a year, and my father, three. For so many years, I have carried the burdens of guilt and obligation. Guilt for my mother's mental illness, for my parents' unhappiness, for leaving them to save myself as a teenager. Guilt over what happened to me after leaving them. And after years of personal work to let go of the guilt, there was the sense of obligation for their care and well-being as they became more frail and unwell in later life.

In total, I spent twelve years bearing the obligation for that care. Voluntarily bearing it. I complained, I resented, I enlisted what sibling help I could get, when I could get it. After my first breast cancer diagnosis, I was advised to give up some of the responsibility for their care, but no one else was offering to take it on, so I kept going. After my second breast cancer diagnosis five years later, I gave up the responsibility of  being their health care proxy and power of attorney as soon as my sister offered to take that on. When she hinted at my resuming those roles a few years later, I refused.

Although I was not their proxy or POA, because I lived in the same city, I was the one showing up in the ER or nursing home when they had a health crisis. I was the one pushing for my Dad's transfers to higher levels of care when everyone else would have left him be. It was my brother John and I who lived here and visited them both regularly. In my Dad's last year, I read to him every week after he lost his eyesight. And I sat by his side for his final days, watching him die, trying to keep him calm and comfortable.

After Dad died, things got harder. I visited Mom less because it made me so sad to be with her and her overwhelming grief. I spent those last two years feeling both obligation, which I failed to fulfill, and guilt for that failure. Sure, I showed up if she needed me, or if there was a crisis, or if I felt strong enough to bear her sadness, but it wasn't often enough.

Since Mom died almost a year ago, I have been freed of the burden of obligation. At first, I didn't know who I was without it, and then I spent some months allowing myself to relax in the freedom from having to worry about them, resent them, feel responsible for them, compromise myself for them. 

In its place, I have instead been nursing regrets. Regrets for the things that happened to them in their lives, for the things that should have happened but did not. Regrets over things I should have done, or should have done better or more often, or with more sincerity or affection.

I think that in some ways, nursing regrets is just another way of clinging to people we have already lost. I can't ever bring them back, nor can I rewrite history to make their lives better or happier or less poverty-stricken. Regrets don't make me feel better about myself or my own life, or about my time with them. I think they just fill some of the space that used to be occupied by obligation and guilt, and which has been left empty by their deaths.

This morning, as I was walking before my AA meeting, I decided that it is time to let go of these regrets. I need to fill that empty space with something else, something positive, like more love for the people around me, or more confidence in myself and my abilities, or more passion for my work, or pursuing more creative outlets, or maybe volunteer work with people or animals I care about. I think I might feel a little lost for a while without these regrets and the connection that they are to my parents. I will miss my parents more, I'm sure. 

But I am ready for this next stage of my life without them. Wherever they are, if they are aware of anything about the life they had here, I do not want regret to be a part of that awareness. Not for them, and now, not for me.