Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

On Finality, Loss, Regret

On the way home from Nairobi, on the last leg of my flight–from Newark to San Francisco–I was seated next to a young, excited, but mature young woman who had just returned from a month of traveling in Europe with her father, who was seated on the other side of her but slept the whole flight. I listened to her stories–it sounded like she’d had a great time–and talked about travel, and where I’ve been, but the whole time all I could think about was wishing I’d taken a trip like that with my own father. And now it’s too late.

The finality of a parent’s death doesn’t sink in until much, much later, months after the cards and emails of condolence that you were too raw to respond to at first, but saved in the hopes that you might at some point have the energy to respond. It isn’t until months later, when you realize that you’ll never take that trip you talked about, or discuss that book that hasn’t come out yet that you talked about maybe reading together, that it sinks in: He’s never coming back. It will never be the same again.

You don’t realize, until months later, maybe a year, maybe more, that your life has changed forever. You don’t realize how much you’re personally affected until you can look back and realize what havoc that single act–of passing–has wreaked on your life. Maybe you cried for a few days or a few weeks then went on with your life, thinking that pushing through it is the only way to go. And maybe it was, but then you look back and wish you’d taken advantage of, rather than pushed aside, all of those offers of kindness that you were still too raw, too tenacious even, to accept. And then, months later, you realize you’re finally ready to talk, except no one’s there with a ready ear.

It’s been 225 days since I lost him and in some ways I feel more raw now than I did that night when, surrounded by mostly strangers and a few friends at a professional dinner in British Columbia, I saw the two missed calls from my mother and I knew, left the room, cried on a friend’s shoulder, smoked a solitary cigarette, then composed myself and went back to the table. It was a month before I had to delete his number from my phone because some mornings, out of habit, I would dial it thinking I might blabber on about my week while walking to work like I had done for years. It was two months before I stopped instinctively buying him gifts each time I traveled (always a little box of some kind). It’s been eight months and each time I visit a new destination I still think of how, with childlike wonder, he would ask what each place was like.

I’ve tried to write about it. I have several unpublished blog posts, usually written under some level of intoxication and thank goodness I have the wherewithal not to consider publishing until morning. It’s when I’m drunk that I’m most easily triggered into tears over the smallest things: a song from childhood sung badly at karaoke, the death of a coworker’s dog.

And I have talked: with the friend who was there the night I got the call. With my mother, listening to voicemails she’s saved. In Haarlem, as I walked the same streets we’d walked six years earlier. On the boardwalk in Copacobana with the sun shining brightly on my face, a caipirinha in my hand. On a long-distance phone call from a hotel room in Madrid to a mobile phone in Japan. Every time I think I’ve talked enough, I realize, though…it’s never enough. There will never be enough words to explain how deep a loss this is.

I got a tattoo a few weeks ago for him. Ironic, really, since he never liked my tattoos, or tattooing in general. It took me awhile to think of what would mean the most; I thought of trying to design something combining a guitar and a sailboat, two of his favorite things, but in the end I went with a philosophy I’ve held since I was sixteen, something I’d tried so hard to impart on him in his final, sad years. Je ne regrette rien, “I have no regrets.” It means more now than it ever did then, as I spent hours talking to him on the phone, in the car, while we drove, about the things he wished he’d done or hadn’t done. His secrets are ours, I wouldn’t dare share them, but suffice it to say he left this world with regrets. I don’t ever want to, cannot ever do the same.

If there is one thing he saw me as most, it was a writer. And it is in his memory that I will carry on that honor. And if there’s one thing he wished for me most, it was a life without regrets. All I can do is strive for that.

16 Comments

  1. And a beautiful writer at that.

  2. It took me 20 years to read my dad’s last letters to me and to write about them. I think we get used to the pain, but it never really goes away. We learn to live with it, and still try to share what we do with these very, very special people in our lives. To keep writing and live without regrets is the best legacy he has left. I am sure you will live up to both. Bon courage.

    • Thank you Mich,

      I’d love to read your writing on your dad’s letters, can I find it on your blog? Thank you for your kind words.

  3. So beautiful Jillian. What a lovely tribute to your dad.

  4. You stirred your words in my 13 year old pain of losing my mother and awakened me to the smell of honeysuckle memories and to the taste of salt a single tear leaves on the tip of the tongue after it travels down the face of time.

    • Thank you dear Abufares,

      It always remains with you, doesn’t it? I suspect that that bittersweetness is the best way of keeping memories alive. Memories are inherently salty, eh?

  5. Beautiful post, Jillian. Thank you for writing it. I’m glad we got to spend lots of meaningful time again at Oslo, and I look forward to more as we, the GV tribe, continue our journeys. Your words have inspired me to spend more time with my parents, and say the things that perhaps need to be said, but don’t really get uttered. Peace.

    • Thank you Amir,

      I’m also so glad we got to spend time together, and sorry we didn’t meet up in the Netherlands; that said, I’m sure our paths will soon cross again somewhere out in the big bad world. Can’t wait to read your book, and many thanks for always being there with solid advice.

  6. Fantastic post. Really grabs me. I lost my father almost three years ago. And my uncle a few years before that. It still sucks. But it makes you a richer person. So there’s multiple sides to it.

    I just started reading your blog a couple of days ago, and read your post about how you weren’t really a blogger anymore. I felt like I had missed the parade.

    Glad to see you’re still a blogger. :-)

    • Thank you Dave,

      Oh, I’ll always be a blogger; I just don’t feel as connected to blogging as I once did. Many thanks for your kind words.

  7. Every time one of my friends “likes” this post I find myself coming back to read it. It’s been three times today. I’ve cried three times today.

    Courage.

  8. “And maybe it was, but then you look back and wish you’d taken advantage of, rather than pushed aside, all of those offers of kindness that you were still too raw, too tenacious even, to accept. And then, months later, you realize you’re finally ready to talk, except no one’s there with a ready ear.”

    Resonated all too well.

  9. Just read this now. Utterly beautiful; what a lovely and candid tribute. Thank you for sharing, Jill.

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