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.
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
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.
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.