“If only. Those must be the two saddest words in the world”
Almost two years ago, precisely on the 19th of December, 2019, right before the pandemic started, when we were just getting to hear about a strange virus from the Wuhan district of China, I was talking to my parents on WhatsApp. I live in the Netherlands and my parents in India, a few thousand miles away.
Not sure if you can call it a discussion though because I was barely there — they were the ones who were trying to talk to me but I was lost in my thoughts. I was feeling sad because someone hurt my feelings and at that moment I considered that as more important than my parents (even though as trivial as it may sound now).
I remember clearly my father calling my name several times, but I just chose not to respond. I was tired, irritable, and hurt and trying to hide my feelings from them and hence, not in a position to have a normal discussion. I thought I can talk to my father tomorrow.
But there was no tomorrow. The next morning I received a call from my cousin that my father had passed away. He had gone out for an errand and died of a sudden heart attack on the road.
It was so sudden. I never got the chance to know what he was trying to tell me the night before. Guilt tormented me like hell. Why couldn’t I give him one moment from my ‘precious’ time? Why couldn’t I pause and just listen to him? If only I could go back in time and change that, if only….
I could never forgive myself for that and have regretted that one decision. Every.Single.Day. And I would carry it to my grave.
I remember that night so well – I didn’t sleep at all. I didn’t know he was dying a few thousand miles away. I had no way of knowing that because it was a sudden death and we weren’t prepared at all. But I still couldn’t. My feeling of hurt was still bothering me and I spent the night awake.
I actually didn’t realize the shock immediately after I received the news the next morning. I was more busy trying to arrange for a flight ticket, to be there on my mother’s side as early as possible, to arrange for his funeral.
It was the last day of school before Christmas vacation, everyone was going on a holiday, and finding a flight ticket on that short notice was a real challenge. I was trying to keep calm and take care of all the official work that’s necessary after death. The next few days passed in a whirlwind.
It was only after I came back to the Netherlands, that I had the time to pause and think. I started seeing my father regularly in my dreams. However, the dreams were anything but pleasant or peaceful. They were all wild nightmares. I saw terrible things happening to him and as much as I tried, I saw myself helpless.
I screamed in my dreams, my body got numb in shock, I couldn’t even move or wake up. My husband would have to shake me and wake me up from my nightmares and it continued for months.
I knew I needed help desperately and after a long wait, I could finally start with therapy in July the next year. My therapist, Amber (God bless her) suggested EMDR — Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy. After many sessions with her, finally one night I had a dream which wasn’t a nightmare.
I saw my father in an impeccably manicured garden, wearing his very favorite sleeveless sweater, sitting on a chair and relishing his favorite tea. He looked healthy like he did a few years ago.
The soft glow of the sunshine on the beautiful garden and on him seemed celestial and sublime (I don’t have the right words actually). I was taken aback by this beauty and had to stop and marvel.
In my dream, I forgot he was dead. I saw myself busy hanging laundry outside, while my mother was in the shower (it’s so weird, he died on the street when my mother was in the shower) but this time I paused and had a conversation with him.
I asked him how he was doing. He said he was doing great with a smile while gently swaying his legs sideways, as he would always do while sipping his tea. He looked relaxed and at peace.
I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night, but not with terror — this time there was a sense of peace and calmness. I really longed to go back to that garden.
Now I am not sure if that is heaven, I am not even religious, but if that is indeed heaven, I am more than happy to join him soon.
The power of now still did not dawn on me though until a couple of months ago. I started my mindfulness journey last October and sometime this year I came across these two books: Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn and The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
One night I was lying in bed, unable to sleep, worrying, feeling miserable. I was blaming my luck, my situation, my circumstances, feeling sad and thinking how better my future would look if I could do this one thing, if I could do that, or if I could be there instead of being here, or if that would come true, and so on. The list was endless.
Since last year, I have been reading a lot about mindfulness, I am gaining knowledge and perspective, I still didn’t quite get the essence though. I think reading gives you the knowledge and the tools to grasp something, especially if it is a complex subject like mindfulness. However, it is incomplete if you do not feel or experience it yourself.
I lay in bed with my agony and pain and self-pity. And suddenly it hit me.
All I have is this moment. This one breath.
The future that I was imagining and wanted so badly, may not even come. I may not live tomorrow to reach there. I am constantly either in my past or in my future and ignoring my ‘now’ to get a different future, forgetting how precious this one moment is.
I am not telling you to stop planning or thinking about the future though — that will be the death of hope and that would be the last thing I would ever advise.
Hoping, planning, having goals, and working on our vision is one thing, but constantly being worried about our future, relentlessly being unhappy with our present, and never living in the moment makes us forget — this moment is all we have.
That night, I chose something trivial over my father because I was somewhere else and hence I was never ‘there’.
I have never shared this story with anyone else other than my therapist. Today I am sharing with you all with the hope that you don’t make the same mistake I did and carry the burden of this regret throughout your life and wonder about your ‘if onlys’.
We don’t usually talk about guilt, shame, or vulnerability and it takes a lot of courage to accept our mistakes, acknowledge and take action. I am still not rid of the guilt, but I put an effort to be more present with my loved ones so that I don’t have another regret to carry.
So take a deep breath, and cherish your moment as if this is all you have got.