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regret is a four letter word [narrative]

my unfinished final love letter

How do you begin to articulate an end? Perhaps shakily. Or hesitantly. Perhaps with your heart on your sleeve, or else on the verge of tears. Perhaps, like me, you wouldn’t want to begin at all. Perhaps you can tell, even in these words, that I am trying my best to run away from goodbye. 

I have been running away from a lot of things, if I’m being honest with you. About three weeks ago, I was running away from my thesis—I had been writing nonstop for days, with only a few hours of sleep in between. (At one point, I was so delirious I asked someone if their water bottle was a lotion dispenser.) So I ended up running up, out, and into a corner of the Salomon auditorium to watch a dance performance. I was still feverishly typing up a chapter (yes, on my phone) until I heard my name. My name? 

Someone is waving at me. I crane my neck to see a string of freshmen friends sitting mere feet away, all waving. I’m unable to join them—there isn’t enough space in their row—but one of them moves to sit next to me anyways. You don’t have to, I say, but in truth, it is nice to have someone do this. It’s nice to be a senior welcomed by freshmen. It’s strange too, and I realize I’ve become so accustomed to taking care of others that I forgot what it is like to be taken care of. This is a good kind of strange, I decide. 

Stranger still is the fact that I cried that night in the corner of Salomon. Not because of the friend who decided to sit next to me, or because of my thesis, or because of anything in particular. I just think my body is flooded with a feeling so unspeakable it has to find release through tears. As the music plays and the dancers tangle and untangle themselves onstage, my heart tangles and untangles itself too. I am tearing up because I’m going to miss this, I think to myself. I’m going to miss randomly bumping into strangers-turned-friends, who want to sit next to me; I’m going to miss the student productions and all the other valid reasons to procrastinate. I’m going to miss coming home to the lights on and sharing soggy lemon cake with my first and forever college friend. 

There is nothing more college than this, I think to myself, as the lights dim and I whoop the name of my housemate, who is now dancing to BTS on stage. Everyone in this room knows that the person next to them is also here for someone else—a friend performing, a friend sitting to their left, a friend who dragged them here even when they complained they had an assignment to finish. The funny thing about running away from everything is that in your wild escape, you realize you’re running toward something else. I guess that’s the point of running away, after all. You run away from EverythingInGeneral in order to run toward Something, or Someone, who will hold You in particular. 

During intermission, my friend asks a question that has not left me since: “Before you graduate, you have to tell me about all your regrets, okay?” 

“Regrets?” I wonder aloud. “Wait—you only want to know about my regrets?”

We laugh at my question. We laugh even more because my friend is now regretting asking his question about regret—that’s not what he really meant, he’s sorry, oh no, haha. And there’s a recognition, at least on my part, that this laughter will end, too, that soon I’ll have to consider the question seriously.

So for three weeks now, I have been thinking about regret. What is it? What do I regret in these past four years? I have been asking my other senior friends these questions, as well as my mentors, and some of my professors too. Is there anything we wish we could have told our younger selves? Is there anything we regret? I guess these are the things we discuss with each other in order to articulate—to cope with—an end. Like my friends dancing on stage, I guess we all want to end our dance with a gesture to the crowd. We want to track the motif of music in the story we have lived.

+++

Some nights later I am washing the dishes with my floormate. “You know what,” I tell her. “Sometimes I just wish I could talk to God face-to-face. I wish I could just sit on the couch with him and chat.” 

I imagine what the dialogue would be between God and me, and so I say aloud, “I’ve been wondering how you looked, God. So I guess you fit on our couch.”

My floormate is laughing now, and then she is crying, and she tells me she doesn’t know why. I understand her entirely. “I guess I want to sit with God on the couch too,” she tells me. 

But when I ask her, “What would you ask God if you were sitting on our couch?” she says she doesn’t know. 

“What about you?”

“I don’t know either,” I say. “Maybe just, like, God, can you…hug me?” 

This time we laugh until we’re both crying.

Later that night, we are both sprawled on the couch, munching on pretzels. I put my hand on my floormate’s knee—the same way I did during my first year when we lived together in New Pembroke 4—and I say this: “Julianne, I think since God can’t be here in person, he gave me you.”

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I think about regret again. And then I think, there is never any regret in telling the people we love that we love them.

+++

“I worried a lot,” wrote Mary Oliver.

…Will the garden grow, will the rivers

flow in the right direction, will the earth turn

as it was taught, and if not how shall

I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, 

can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows

can do it and I am, well,

hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,

am I going to get rheumatism,

lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.

And gave it up. And took my old body 

and went out into the morning,

and sang.

+++

I guess even God had to say goodbye. I guess even he had a Last Supper and a last kiss. And in one of his last conversations with his friends, even God asked them, “Do you love me? Do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15) I think he wanted to know if his friends loved him more than the fish they went to catch that morning, and the water those fish swam in. He wanted to know if they loved him—the real him—even more than their precious memories together. 

We’re taught that God knows everything. And you know what’s funny? Even though he does—even though he knew his friends loved him—God still wanted to hear those three precious words. Three words, which, for some inexplicable reason, make us all feel like we can walk on water. 

“You know everything,” his friend Peter replied to him, “you know that I love you.”

I think about regret again. And then I think, there is never any regret in telling the people we love that we love them.

+++

I suppose I still haven’t answered the question. It’s because I’m good at deflection, I tell my friends—but if you really pay attention, you can see everything about me. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and right now my heart is still thinking about regret. 

So what do I regret in the past four years?

I guess I wish I found Pedestrian Bridge earlier. I wish I realized earlier how easy it is to wander through Providence under the care of blossoming trees. I wish I took myself a little less seriously earlier. I wish I had allowed myself to eat more spicy withs earlier. I wish I had found people and friendships earlier. 

But not all of these things I can control. And all of these things, after four years, I have indeed found. There is not really anything I regret, only things I nostalgically wish I had found earlier—simply because if I had, we would have spent more time together. Yet even then, I think it is for the best that I found these loves when I found them. If 20 million years ago the butterfly flew in a different direction do you think we would have met? 

This is what Clint Smith asks in his poem “Chaos Theory”:

…maybe

we wouldn’t have even been

people, maybe we wouldn’t

have even been us, you know…

maybe we would both be plants

on opposite sides of the same

coral reef, so that we could

have been connected without

ever having met…

but what I mean to say

is that it would have been

such a tragedy

if something happened

that would have prevented me

from meeting you

like a butterfly

who didn’t realize it was flying

in the wrong direction.

+++

So maybe regret is the wrong word. 

Regret is too imbued with guilt, sorrow, and anxiety—emotions I feel anything but. What I feel is gratitude. And did you know it’s neurologically impossible to be grateful and anxious at the same time? The neural pathways literally shut off; it’s one or the other.

In my favorite TV show as of late, 39, the main character says something like, “The stars are so pretty tonight it makes me sad.” I think I feel that. A sad happiness. Maybe that is what gratitude feels like, maybe this is the wisdom of endings. I am overwhelmingly, achingly grateful for my past four years of college—for being able to build a home out of Brown, for being able to build a dance out of chaos. To be able to do these things with you, and you, and you. 

I think when we say “regret,” what we really mean is that after all this time, we have realized the things we love—and we have realized, too, that those things have been loving us back all along and after all this time. Maybe we wish we had found them sooner, these places and these people. And then again,  maybe it’s okay we didn’t. Maybe if we had met earlier, we wouldn’t have fallen in love after all. 

I’d like to think that finding each other here and now makes our embrace warmer, more incredible, and even more undeserved. I’d like to think it was always supposed to be this way.

So when I think about regret, I’m not really thinking about regret at all. Just, I don’t want to say goodbye yet. Just, I love you, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long to realize it. I wish I loved you sooner. 

I can’t change any of that, though.  

So instead I will run toward you, now and forever, and I will refuse, and refuse, and refuse goodbye.



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