Let It Go. Then Go On.
By Rebecca McClanahan
Ah, January. Here it comes again. Soon it will be time to secure a fresh calendar to the fridge, make resolutions I will break before the week is over, and toss holiday cards and invitations into the recycling bin. Time to remember where the month got its name—from Janus, the Roman god of endings and beginnings. Like doorways and gateways (which he also presides over) Janus is literally two-faced, able to look backward and forward at the same time. No easy task for us humans, at least not for me. I tend to look backward far too often, so absorbed in the dark forests of the past that I fail to look to the future, even when the path ahead is lit with possibility.
But at night, my regrets line up like ghostly visitations, waking me from sleep.
So each December, in an attempt to turn my face forward to the new year, I try to make peace with the old one. I search my journals for moments of laughter and light and—what a surprise!—there they are, tucked in among the daily frets. But at night, my regrets line up like ghostly visitations, waking me from sleep: the acid words I threw that time, the charity checks I didn’t write, the grieving aunt I failed to visit, the letter of apology I couldn’t finish, my impatience with my parents when exhaustion from years of caregiving wore me down to a nub.
This is not what my mother taught, this dwelling on the past. She has always been not only the kindest and most forgiving person I’ve ever known but also the most forward-facing one. All my life I have watched her, trying to learn from example how to live with grace and generosity, I have failed again and again. I wish she could tell me how she accomplishes this. There is so much I need to learn from her, so many chances I missed along the way. Though she is still on this earth, each year she moves more deeply into what experts call the “fog of dementia.” Two minutes after I clear her lunch plate, she can’t recall what she ate or even if she ate at all. When I show her my father’s photo, as I have been doing since his death three years ago, she merely blinks. She stares blankly at my face, tracking from my eyes down to my nose and mouth and then to my hands, so much like hers, as if struggling to make the pieces fit. When a rare light of recognition crosses her face, it quickly flickers out. Her silence fills the room.
In my years as a hospice volunteer, I learned that such changes are common even with patients without dementia; they are part of the process of withdrawing from the land of the living and preparing for “the next step.” Mother’s visiting hospice nurse confirms this. But I am not ready for the next step. And though over the years I have recorded my mother’s stories and committed them to paper, I regret not doing more to learn what she had to teach.
Forgiveness, she said, was in some ways a selfish act. “I let it go so that I can go on.”
Now, in the cold dark of winter, as my mother moves closer toward “the next step,” I am rereading her notebooks and the decades of journal entries she started but hardly ever finished because her six kids were always interrupting her. I study my own journals, too, especially the records of conversations I had with her. Like most people, my mother has been hurt deeply at times—by friends, employers, distant and close relatives—and I often asked her how she was able to forgive and to look ahead with such eagerness and hope even when life seemed unfair.
She never answered with stock phrases or biblical injunctions, though she believed and practiced precepts such as “forgive us . . . as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Her answer was more practical: She forgave transgressions because it allowed her to keep moving forward. To hold onto the pain and hurt—or to give it back in equal measure, even when it was deserved—did no one any good. Forgiveness, she said, was in some ways a selfish act. “I let it go so that I can go on.” Then she would add, with a hint of sadness, “Forgiving yourself is the hardest part.”
I agree. As Carl Jung asks in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, what should I do if I discover that “I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness—that I myself am the enemy who must be loved—what then?” That question, it seems to me, is at the core of regret. When we refuse to release our regrets, we trespass against ourselves, and the only way to forgive “as we forgive those who trespass against us” is to forgive ourselves.
At the end of my life, I don’t want my regrets lining up at my bedside and demanding my attention.
If my mother could answer me now, I believe she would say, “Yes, that’s it. That’s what we must do.” Though she does not recognize our faces or speak to us directly, sometimes when she lies in bed at night, or in the nodding-off spaces between daylight and dreaming, she begins to talk to the air. At times her eyes are closed tightly; at other times they stare at the wall or into the corner of the room, and she nods and smiles, gesturing as if in lively conversation. One night not long ago, when I thought that she surely would not make it until morning, I sat beside her bed. I wanted to get inside her mind, to hear what she hears, see what she sees. Perhaps the fog of dementia is not a fog at all; perhaps it is a veil that I can lift. That is what I was feeling. I don’t want to begin the new year in darkness. And at the end of my life, I don’t want my regrets lining up at my bedside and demanding my attention. I want to be able to say, “I let it go so that I could go on.”
I pulled my chair closer to listen. Her voice was soft but distinct; I could hear every word. To whom was she speaking? My father? Her parents? Someone who had wronged her, or someone she had wronged? There was no way to know, but the message was clear: “Oh, I let that go a long time ago,” she said. “A long time ago.” Then she smiled and laid her head down on the pillow.
She made it through the night. She is still making it through the night, and into the next day, and the next. When she speaks to the air, perhaps she is dispensing the alms of her own kindness on herself. If so, she is still teaching me. And I am still listening.
About the Writer
Rebecca McClanahan’s eleventh book, In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays, is forthcoming in 2020. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Boulevard, The Sun, and numerous anthologies. Recipient of the Glasgow Award in Nonfiction, the Wood Prize from Poetry Magazine, two Pushcart Prizes, and the Carter Prize for the Essay, she teaches in the MFA programs of Rainier Writing Workshop and Queens University and in the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. She can be reached at RebeccaMcClanahanWriter.com.
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