The Joy Menu #54: Regret
For most of my father’s dying, he’s been insistent on a complete lack of regret — would not go back, would not change a thing, would not even ruffle a hair on the head of his already-lived life.
In the final episode of the Argentine-Spanish TV drama Vientos de Agua, the octogenarian paterfamilias travels back to his village in Asturias, Spain after fifty years to confront his boyhood, his departed family, his loss, and the events that lead to his hasty departure and emigration as a young man so many years before — factors that precipitated the long and full life he lived across the ocean in Argentina (and the dramatic content of the series).
In the episode, as he navigates an Asturias which has and hasn’t changed, he travels with — and is literally haunted by — the people he’s lost along the way (friends, siblings, wives). In effect, he gets to make this trip with them because he’s outlived them. His story becomes all of their stories; or more accurately, their stories become his. His eyes are their eyes, his feet their feet, his return all of their returns; even though they aren’t from Asturias, or even Spain.
He travels to his boyhood home, and he carries his dead with him.
No regrets, he says. Again and again.
But if I regretted one thing…
In Ohio, tucked up high in the Beachwood apartment, he’s no longer interested in walking. It’s fall and the sun is less intense, seems to come in at a slant, not so much shining through the sliding glass doors that line the side of the living room and kitchen as casting a gauzy shadow across them — the soft wagging tail of a bashful, old dog.
He’s not interested in sitting on the balcony, or even opening the windows.
(I think of Biscuit, our family dog, who spent her last years seated beneath the sink in my parents’ upstairs bathroom, uninterested in fresh air or the smells of the garden; how, when you came into the room, she looked up with reticent acceptance yet still lifted her back leg an inch or so to indicate consent for a belly rub).
What has changed? Is it the progression of the illness, seasonal sadness, emotional fatigue? Are those things different? Can one tell? Does it matter?
Still, he sits on his chair; still, he reads (though not for much longer).
If I did regret one thing...
For most of my father’s dying, he’s been insistent on a complete lack of regret — would not go back, would not change a thing, would not even ruffle a hair on the head of his already-lived life. Perhaps he feels it’s all been as it needed to be, even the mistakes, even the bad times; or perhaps it’s just easier to release oneself from wondering, rehashing, reshuffling. The hairs lay where they lay, regardless. (My therapist calls him “stoic.”)
But now, sometimes, in certain moods (a leg lifted…), he’ll mention one regret. One unfinished plan. One incomplete urge. More an untied knot than a broken promise. More a confusing loss than a mourned mistake.
Why did we leave that thread hanging?
At some point, I write this in my notes:
“Now he says his one regret is not having traveled back to find Jane, his nanny, or her daughter. (I think of being raised by someone other than my own parent; another rupture, another exile?) But when he was healthy and had the cash he never considered the trip. Too hard, too far (in time? in space?); afraid to rupture a remembered past with the rough contours of a present reality?”
It wasn’t uncommon in South Africa of the 1950s for a middle class white family — one with the means, with a big enough house, with a few kids running around — to employ a Black nanny to mind the children. My father’s nanny was named Jane. For all of my father’s boyhood, she lived in one of the two houses behind the main house (next door to Moffat); on weekends she’d travel to see her daughter, once a year she’d travel to her homeland to see her people.
Jane came to work for the family when my father’s older brother was born, and she moved with them three times — as they wound their way through various peregrinations (“from the house to the apartment to the other house”) and arrangements in anticipation of their emigration. When they finally did leave, Jane had worked for them for nearly twenty years, a majority of her working life, and the entirety of my father’s existence.
Like a family member — but not.
On the recording, I ask my father about Jane. Our voices are muffled; it’s late in the game already. Are we in bed? Is he tired? Or does this topic drain him?
Me: Where did she go when you left for Israel?
Him: Back to her homeland. To Swaziland. I guess she would have been in her fifties by then.
Me: And did she retire, or…?
Him: You know, I never asked. I assume she did. But I never asked if my parents paid her a lump sum when we left, supported her, sent her money, or how much, or what.
Me: Do you think she went to work for another family?
Him: No, no. I don’t think she did. It’s hard when you’ve worked for so long for one family; seen the kids grow up. Raised the kids.
In the background, I hear my mother’s voice, loosely part of the conversation. She asks some questions and my father answers off-handedly — even without visuals, you can tell he’s lost in thought.
Him: I should have asked more questions. I didn’t. It’s a failing. I should have paid attention; gone to see her.
His voice is strained. Now, writing this, I see him on the bed: the mattress on the floor; the bed frame in storage while the house is being built. I sit beside him, my knees pressed against my belly. He pulls the comforter down, tucks it into his armpits; exposes his shoulders, his nipples, his hairy chest. The recording becomes convoluted with ruffling. It’s my mother, in her nightgown, standing and moving into the bathroom to begin her day.
I think of having a nanny — a person employed to care for me. The intimacy it implies; the uncomfortable structures of distance. And then turning 15, emigrating, and never seeing them again. Another rupture, another exile.
Him: She disappeared, after all that. Never heard from her, never spoke to her again. After a whole life. Or I did.
If we’d gone, if we’d been able go (in an imagined life where he had not gotten sick), what would the trip have been like?
Perhaps, unaffected by the heaviness of its non-existence, it would have just been a trip: jetlag and tasty dinners, vistas seen for minutes, souvenirs, and experiences as captivating and exhausting as any — like when we went as a family to Japan; fun, interesting, stressful, expensive.
Would we have found Jane? Would we have even looked? (How many trips to New York and we never once made the effort to find my birthplace or visit my mother’s childhood home?)
If we’d tried, would she have been alive? Even her daughter would have been near eighty. (Though at least she could have told us some stories, filled in the gaps, lofted a rope across the gulfs of time, and culture, and loss.)
I feel equal parts sadness, fury, and futility at the non-existence of this timeline.
In the finale of Vientos de Agua, Andres stands before his childhood home. It is bent-roofed and empty. His grown son turns to him, asks, Should we buy it? Fix it up? Keep it as an homage to the family, to your youth?
His face says: what a ridiculous question. His voice, What for?
When I go back to Irvine, only 200 miles and a dozen years away, I find only shadows of my childhood, chalk outlines, caricatures. I see my father’s ghost — just beyond the periphery, making its way around the Loop.
What would it have meant for my father to travel 10,000 miles and 50 years away? Who would he have carried there, and what ghosts would have been waiting for him?
And now? Where are those ghosts?
I don’t know their names. I wouldn’t recognize their faces. Yet now, I think, they are mine.
My eyes are their eyes, my feet are their feet. I carry them, as he did.
Just as I carry him.
Onward to creative joy,