Regret (A Flash Story)

I often blog about writing, but I rarely share what I write. So I’ll break the trend by sharing a flash-fiction piece, Regret, that I crafted last summer. The story was substantially improved thanks to the good folks of Phillip Sterling’s flash-fiction roundtable at the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters. I continue to tweak it and to occasionally sent it to various flash contests. Because I want to retool this piece, I’m no longer going to send it elsewhere — so I’m happy to post it here, for your reading pleasure and your opinion.
One note: The constraint from Phillip’s roundtable is that the piece couldn’t exceed 800 words. This one doesn’t, barely.
Anyway — here you go.


“Kid, ain’t no one ever lay on his deathbed and regret that his credit score weren’t high enough.”
I smile at George—the last patient on my pastoral-care visit list–but mentally I cringe. He’s going to be a talker.
“So, then, what does someone on his deathbed regret?” I ask, without thinking. The question invites superfluous conversation. And, worse, George probably only had a few days left, so my query was insensitive.
He looks up at me, a spark struggling to ignite through the heavy-lidded wetness clouding his eyes. A cannula twists from his nostrils to the oxygen port. Various bits of technology blend into him—a port, IV lines, an oxygen sensor, a pressure cuff—as if he were some sort of elderly cyborg outfitted from parts salvaged from the discount bin at a medical-supply store.
“You have nothing to regret but regret itself!”
“Good point, Mr. Roosevelt,” I joke, positioning myself next to the head of his bed. I raise my pyx and prayerbook. “Would you like to receive Jesus now?”
George’s scowl softens. He chuckles, coughs, swallows, pauses, then mutters, “Look, kid. I know you’re busy. Do what you gotta do, okay?” He gazes toward the ceiling tiles.
I sit next to him, embarrassed that he saw through my impatience. So I say, “George, what do you mean about regretting regret?”
He faces me again, his earlier intensity slipping into a quiet weariness. “Well,” he says, after a moment’s pause, “think of it like this. We all live. Then we die. Along the way, shit happens. Thing is, when you get to the end of the road, and you look back, the more that you regret stuff, the more fuzzy your memories get, ‘til you don’t recognize them no more. It’s like the trip didn’t make no damn difference.”
“So what you’re saying,” I summarize with a nod, “is that people should make good life choices.”
George’s face flashes irritation. “Naw, naw,” he says. “More like, whatever you do, own it. Be okay with what happens, good or bad. Like that serenity prayer.”
“And don’t worry about your credit score?”
He manages a slight smile. “Look at me, kid. All I got with me now is what’s in my head. Not any of the clutter sitting in my house. It’s the life you’ve lived, not the stuff you’ve got, that matters. You know?”
“I get it.”
He raises an eyebrow. “No, you don’t. You’re what? Mid 20s? You don’t get it. Not really. But you will, at some point.”
“So what do you regret, then?”
“Did I say I regretted anything?”
“You’re harping on the subject.”
“Maybe I am.”
I let the silence linger for a moment. “No regrets? Really?”
George rolls his slender frame slightly toward me in a futile attempt to lean up on an elbow. He licks his chapped lips. “Well,” he says, “I ain’t been no angel. But no demon, neither. Been to war and back. Done drugs. Had a kid. All that shit. And none of it bothers me.” He pauses. “But you know what? I’m losing the fight with this damned blood cancer and I know I’m not gonna make it. And the only thing I regret right now is that I can’t say goodbye to Morris.”
“Your son?”
Another flash of irritation. “My cat.”
“So you don’t want to see your kid, but you do want to see your cat?”
“My daughter died in ’76. Idiot girl drove drunk into a tree. Last few years, though, Morris has been my friend. And I didn’t get to say goodbye before the ambulance carted me away. My neighbor will take good care of him when I’m gone. He’ll be okay. But still. It’s hard to focus on remembering the last 81 years while worrying—”
His voice breaks, but I understand. My sister euthanized my cat Pascal just a month before, for feline leukemia, but I was out of town when it happened. No closure. I still miss him, fiercely, and I miss having a feline friend around the house.
After a moment of silence, I begin: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We launch into the familiar litany of the Rite of Communion. I take my time.
When the service concludes, I leave George, who had already started drifting into sleep. I close the door then lean against the wall. I look at my patient list; I spot his address.
Now I know where to find the cat.
I’d regret missing this opportunity.

On the Proactive Avoidance of Relationship Regret

Posted on my Roadmap is my one-sentence mission: “I will be a contented and healthy man who, upon his 70th birthday, can look himself in the mirror free of the sting of regret.” Easier written than done, perhaps, but thinking about the question 32 years early opens the door for opportunities to avoid incurring regret in the first place.
I’m sometimes asked whether I get depressed about not having married and “settled down” with a brood of crumb-crunchers and a little suburban house with a white picket fence and a used minivan and a slightly dopey golden retriever. Usually well-intentioned, the question nevertheless is curious, insofar as it rests on two rickety assumptions: First, that marriage and family are normative, from which deviation signifies loss or defect; and second, that I am ignorant of what I’m missing so therefore I should pine for it.
As to the first assumption, I can only say that I’ve seen many people marry and remain happy together for a very long time. I’ve also seen friends younger than I who have already divorced. I am aware, through my own family’s experience, of what divorce does to family dynamics. A few years ago, when I more actively searched for a partner, I was dismayed to discover just how many women in the 25-to-35 age cohort are either single or divorced … but with at least one small child. Marriage isn’t the institution it used to be, and most families I know have so absorbed the individualist Gestalt that “family” is perhaps more meaningful as a tribal affiliation than as blood-kin identification.
I am not unaware of the benefits of marriage and child-rearing. Should the right situation arise, I’d get married. But I’m not drawn to the institution and I don’t feel incomplete because I live in an apartment with no one except my feline overlords. I’ve seen too many elderly people in the hospital who bet on a spouse and children or grandchildren to look after them in their dotage — and then see those bets fail. No one is guaranteed a loving family surrounding you on your deathbed when you’re in your late 90s. People die; they grow apart, they feud, they have different priorities. When I did pastoral care rounds in the hospital, years ago, it wasn’t all that rare for the older patients to want me to stick around. To talk. Sure, they had families — but, you know, they were busy. Seems odd to structure a life, beginning in your 20s, on the gamble of what you’ll need or want in your twilight years. Yet that’s the message, fundamentally, of family: They’re the ones who will take care of you when you’re back in diapers. Good luck with that.
Life is a series of trade-offs. There’s no such thing as a perfect existence — just a never-ending churn of decisions balanced against each individual person’s proprietary blend of needs and wants. With marriage and kids, you get better income stability, regular affection, family bonding, life milestones. Without marriage and kids, though, I retain the freedom to make major life choices without getting them approved by someone else — I can come and go as I wish, buy or save as I wish, avoid having to live with the inevitable compromises that come with marriage, and if I needed to take care of my mom when she gets old, I’m not subject to the whim of a spouse who may resist or resent it. And certainly not least, if I were to retire to a sailboat and see parts of the world, no one will try to stop me.
The other argument for marriage and family follows from a basic human need for companionship. To which, all I can say is that I do not want for friends. I have a long-term stable core, a middle-ring network that comes and goes, and a large flock of friendly acquaintances. I occasionally have weeks where I think to myself: Self, you need to start declining some social invitations so you can get some work done. So I’m not exactly a lonely recluse.
The second assumption — that I should pine or grieve for what I lack — flows from the first. When you accept the normativity of marriage and procreation, then not having it becomes an emotional struggle, a challenge of self-worth, a grave problem requiring resolution. I think there’s a fairly strong Christian Reformed, West-Michigan-culture thing at play, there, too: If you’re not married by a certain age, then there’s something wrong with you. I know quite a few people who unduly stress out over their lack of a spouse. Anyone who’s spoken to the aspiring MRS candidates at Cornerstone University or Kuyper College or even Calvin College knows the fairytale: You wait for your prince or princess then live happily upper-middle-class forever and ever, amen. Lots of those women end up, several years after their graduation and their weddings, with OKCupid profiles that feature them with their infants. I know; I’ve dated some of them. That toxic culture has wreaked incalculable chaos on the lives of the young and the innocent thanks to the tyranny of impossible expectations.
But I digress.
My biggest frustration with friends who do lust after marriage is that the longer they search in vain, the more out-of-whack their thinking becomes. It’s as if there’s some magical ratchet in their heads that, as the months and years slip away, creates ever-more-unreasonable demands for what they expect in a mate — until they come to obsess after an idealized spouse who could not possibly exist in the real world. In a sense, that ratchet is a defense mechanism, with a twofold task of protecting them having to engage in serious self-examination while precluding relationships that might be “good enough” but are nevertheless avoided because they won’t be perfect. The fairytale always trumps, but the drama never ends.
As for me, I guess I have nothing to pine over because there’s not much related to interpersonal intimacy that I haven’t experienced. I’ve loved people. I’ve woken up smiling with someone else’s head beside mine on the pillow. I’ve known the thrill of a first date, the pain of a break-up, the emptiness of a drunken bar hookup and the joy of bonding with someone over drinks. My closest friends have been with me for going on two decades. If I ever woke up at 2 a.m. with a crisis, I can think of at least five numbers to call off the top of my head where the person on the other end of the line wouldn’t hesitate to leap to my assistance.
I am content. So, having weighed the merits and elected my current path, all I can say is — I think I’ve avoided incurring a regret that would otherwise haunt me in late 2046.