If only we could soften the pain of regret by revisiting the source of our angst. If that were so, I’d have gotten over this particular wound decades ago as I’ve thought about my decision at least a thousand times. It seemed so complicated at the time, but the lesson learned — the lesson that stays with me nearly 40 years later — is simple: When something feels wrong, it probably is.
At age 17, my life was unraveling. My mother was dying, and my father was undone by the seemingly endless slog of her illness. He did his best to take care of my brother and me, and, in terms of creature comforts, we were fine. But crushed as he was, my father could offer no emotional or logistical support about the decisions I faced as I contemplated college. There were no discussions of which schools might suit me and no campus tours. Whatever research was to be done, I was on my own.
I was a good student, and my options were undoubtedly greater than I thought, but I cast a narrow net, applying to only two places: Barnard College in New York City (about 15 miles from my suburban home) and a large state school several hours north, which was only on my radar because a neighbor went there. On the day of my Barnard interview, I loved the feel of the compact campus, the mix of old red bricks and modern glass walls. I soaked up the energy of upper Broadway and the quirky girls whizzing around. Yes, this could be right.
A few days later, I got the nod — I was in! It was a sliver of light in the darkest of skies, but there was one huge hitch: Due to overcrowding in the dorms, incoming students residing within 25 miles of campus had to live at home and commute to school.
This was definitely not what I had in mind, but my mother objected even more. She wanted me to have a real college experience. To her, that meant living with a gaggle of roommates on campus, not taking a subway alone to the George Washington Bridge and then a smelly bus down Route 4 every night, arriving home to see how much more life had ebbed from her eyes since I’d left that morning. She encouraged me to head upstate instead, thinking if she were out of my sight I’d somehow become a happy college coed.
Every part of me felt that leaving was wrong, yet, after weeks of discussion, my mother wore me down. I reluctantly said no to Barnard and yes to a sprawling public university I’d never laid eyes on until the day I moved into my dorm.I sat on the edge of her bed stroking her hand, chanting the word “Hi” over and over. I had so much I wanted to say, but that’s all that would come out.
I hated it instantly. The buildings were squat and charmless, as were most of the boys. I zombied my way through classes and missed home desperately. I smoked pot in an effort to dull my ache, but, instead of giggling, I sat in silence most of the time. The highlight of my days was the cafeteria’s butterscotch pudding, which I downed three at a clip.
The error I’d made in choosing this place over Barnard was all too apparent, but my larger mistake was the one that consumed me: I’d let my mother send me away during the final months of her life. She thought it was best, but it was the opposite of what was best. I wanted every minute I could have with her, yet here I was, nearly 200 miles away, as lonely for her as she likely was for me. The irony was that we made this awful choice to make each other happy.
During my third month in exile, two days before Thanksgiving, my father called to say I needed to get home. I’ll always be grateful to some guy named Jeff with his little yellow Pontiac who drove five hours through a blinding snowstorm to drop me at Mount Sinai Hospital before he headed home to Long Island. Upstairs, my mother had already slipped into a coma. I sat on the edge of her bed stroking her hand, chanting the word “Hi” over and over. I had so much I wanted to say, but that’s all that would come out.
My mother died on Thanksgiving Day. A month later, I went upstate to retrieve my belongings and left that campus for good. I should’ve – or somebody should’ve – called Barnard and begged them to take me in, but I was too fragile to do much but bounce in and out of a string of schools for the next couple of years. I regret that deeply. Perhaps it’s silly to think I’d be different or my life would’ve have been richer had I chosen Barnard all those years ago. I’ve accomplished a lot, yet it nags me to this day.
The funny thing is it wasn’t until I sat down to contemplate the subject of what I’d do over if I could that I realized my regret over Barnard isn’t the real regret at all. The real regret is that I didn’t say to my mother, “I’m staying here. That’s what’s best for me.” If I’d stayed home, maybe we would’ve talked about what was happening to her – and to me. Maybe I would have had the chance to say a real goodbye instead of repeating that mindless “Hi.”
I know this story is mine alone, but the takeaway is for everyone — especially young people who might not yet have the guts to trust their gut. To them, I say beware of what feels wrong and respect what feels right, even if that means contradicting someone you love who thinks they know what’s best for you.