Tell me about a missed opportunity…
I’m not sure how long it will actually take me to post this online — in practice, day four might end up living in the land of the missing for awhile. But I will eventually share it. I believe that honesty is important. Not just that telling the truth is inherently necessary for society to stop being so angry and divided and tribal but that sharing what is inside our minds is fundamental to our duty as social beings. So while this is a particularly difficult and traumatic topic for me, I feel it is necessary to share it. If I don’t, how can I ever expect my students to share what they think and feel? How can their writing ever achieve the high points that it otherwise could if they can honestly look back and say Sato-sensei only wrote about things that don’t matter…
So much of my life is simply a collection of missed opportunities and wrong decisions that felt right at the time. Years of chemical dependence on medication that I kept getting prescribed because it was taking away the surface symptoms but was causing untold disasters underneath. Entering into a long-term relationship in which I was continually attacked, tortured and forced into things that I can’t possibly imagine how I didn’t run away. Among other things. All the while being a respected instructor to people who had no idea things weren’t going well underneath. But that’s what being a teacher is all about. It’s about making life better for your students, even when life is a disaster for you. I saw my father fight through the darkness he encountered while inspiring whole generations of students who remember his happiness and encouragement forty years later. I saw my mother, complete with a broken back and unrecoverable spinal damage, wake up every morning and live as an example to everyone who learned from her — and there were so many who did.
My example to follow was to live a life of service to young people. To instill in them a love of language and reading and writing. I think I accomplished it at least sometimes and I am so proud of what they have accomplished. I talk to people now who were once my students and they tell me how much better their writing is. And that’s wonderful and I’m glad I could help them but it’s their hard work that makes it possible. I can’t make someone a better writer if they don’t put in the effort and concentration. All of them did. At least the ones who thank me did. Those who weren’t prepared to put in the work, they did something else with their lives.
But that’s just the background. What opportunity did I miss? The one that comes to mind was more than ten years ago, when I was living back home in Canada. I would say I found someone that I loved deeply but that’s not really what happened. I was found by someone who loved me and taught me that love doesn’t have to be according to society’s sexually-obsessive norms, that it is about depth and connection and the beauty of silence and gentle contact and never being left alone. I have cared deeply for people in my life, both before and after, yet never have I felt at home in the arms of another since she disappeared. She was my dearest friend, my partner, my reason for living. And she is gone. Now she lives only in our minds and dreams. We met because of a pair of mutual friends who no longer speak to me. But I will always be thankful for them, no matter how long I live, because of, if nothing else, that one moment they gave me.
I’ve written before — many times, in fact — about learning to find happiness through the eyes of another when happiness was something I truly believed was only for other people, for neurotypicals. I forgot how to find that happiness when she died. I don’t think I can learn how to live it again and I have more than a decade of trying since then to figure it out. I’ve failed.
The regret, though, is that I failed her. The last time I spoke to her was the day she died but we had spoken every day before that, too. She’d gone to visit her family. It wasn’t a long trip but she’d been gone for a few weeks and was planning to spend quite a bit longer there. And she asked me to come. Told me to come, in fact. There was an insistence there that I don’t think I fully comprehended at the time. Either that or I was intentionally ignoring it. I was working — at a job that I hated — and I was fighting against using this as an excuse to leave and take time away from it. I could have gone. I could have been there. It was obvious that I should have and I knew I was making a mistake at the time. I could have grabbed the opportunity to leave the work that I didn’t want to be doing (working in tech between teaching semesters is unwise even if you need the money rather desperately). But I didn’t. I said I’d come soon. And I did.
If I’d gone, I’d have been there that night. I’d have been next to her. I’d have heard what had happened, who had said something, who had done something to trigger the extreme feelings she had. I’d have been awake and right there to hold her until she was safe and saw the sun come up once more. Of course, I know you can’t be responsible for someone else’s safety forever. But perhaps it would only have taken one more time. One more morning of surviving. One more day of hope. I don’t think I could have stopped her from dying forever. But I do think that I could have stopped it that night and perhaps that would have been enough for her to feel life was worth continuing for awhile. I owed it to her. She taught me that I had a reason to stay alive. I wasn’t there when she needed me to teach her the same lesson.
I cry every day. I teach, I work, I read, I write but she is the inspiration for much of that work and writing and her devotion to young people has given me an extra drive to teach — as if I didn’t have it before, of course, but every little bit helps you get up in the mornings. I remember the day of her funeral. Her parents were far more calm than I have ever been since. They accepted it. They cried and they were paralyzed with grief but they weren’t hysterical or panicked (I certainly was). Their loss was profound and they faced it with composure that it would take me years to learn. Their regrets were my regrets. Their failure was my failure. They have survived and I have nothing but respect and love for them.
I have learned throughout life that regret is a daily experience for me and profound, heartbreaking regret, shame and guilt are the foundation for my entire life. But there is nothing that I look back on with so much guilt, so much shame, such a degree of regret as not being there when I had been asked and told to step in and save the one person who had saved me. I let her down. I let myself down. I forgive myself some days for my failures and my stupidity and my inaction and my weakness.
I will never forgive myself for this.