Like most people, or at least anyone who gives any thought to self-improvement, which includes most of us, I have some notable regrets in life. Some of them can be worked out before I die (God willing), and others will never be resolved in this lifetime. I wish I hadn't let myself be talked into stealing that coveted, sharp tipped purple crayon in the 1st grade. I wish I'd worked to my greatest potential in school, and stopped believing that "I just wasn't good at math." I wish I hadn't wandered off the forest path that day, and that I HAD gone off the beaten path in Paris . . . that I'd chosen the stick shift over the automatic for my first car . . .. and that I'd been kinder to the chubby girl (who could likely be that hauntingly beautiful and willowy book publisher that lofted past me in the grocery store yesterday). I wish I'd listened to my high school counselor when he advised that I choose the year round office job over blind loyalty to my seasonal job employers. I wish I'd kept up with old friends before it was too late . . . because sometimes it is. And on that note -- and here's one that makes me ached with regret whenever I think of it -- I wish I'd taken the time know my grandfather, Max Wayne Ditmore, better, and that I'd recognized his good-bye.
In a recent post You Can't Escape Your DNA, I spoke about the importance of family, the mysteries of heritage, and the circumstances that might lead to estrangement in familial relationships. If my grandfather had lived to be a very old man, I have no doubt that he wouldn't have fallen into that last category. Every day I wish myself walking slowly alongside him, imagining myself extracting every bit of wisdom he could impart, and delighting in the electric blue twinkle of his steely gaze. He died suddenly when I was eighteen, foolish, and full of myself, still believing nothing bad could ever happen or shake my foundation. I remember the day I was called to the hospital where he'd been rushed by ambulance with abdominal pain. The last time I'd seen him, a few weeks before, he'd been virile, a big man moving with the conviction and confidence of John Wayne, and as funny and fond of me as he'd ever been, no matter how seldom I carelessly breezed in and out anymore, as growing grandchildren do. At the hospital, I had navigated the halls to an elevator that would take me up to his room, but moved back out of the way to let a nurse, who was pushing an old man in a wheelchair, go in first. The old man was bent and shriveled, and you could see his boxer shorts and t-shirt through a partially opened hospital gown. His head was bowed, maybe in pain, or the indignity of his circumstances, and out of respect, I sought to avert my eyes. But in that very second, to my horror, I recognized the old man as my grandfather just as the doors closed. To my eternal shame, I fled, shaken. I went back the next day and a bevy of relatives crowded his small hospital room. He lay in a bed, appearing to sleep, in a jumble of intimidating tubes and machines. I still held back, in my stupid inward, adolescent angst, bereft in the shattered image he presented. But amidst the chatter of the relatives, who had turned their attention to me, I looked past them and watched him briefly lift his arm, elbow resting on the bed, his hand aloft as if beckoning someone to come and hold it, and realized too late, it was me. I should have held his hand. I kissed his forehead at his funeral, but among the million regrets I have in life, I fervently wish I had held my grandfather's hand the day before he died.
Thirty years later, and all the days in between, I still feel the sting of that regret, and the ache in knowing that there are some things that you can never do over. And all that is compounded by the regrettable circumstance that I never knew him as an adult. I wish I had had the opportunity to gather more pieces of him that I could relate to now. What I do remember -- one of my earliest memories -- are the books he read. Like me, like my father, he developed a habit of reading at mealtimes. My grandmother would serve him at his place at the table, and he would hold a Louis L'Amour novel aloft in his left hand while he ate with his right. But he would often beckon me to sit on his right knee, retiring his fork long enough to bear hug me and send me scampering on my way.. He never put down the novel . . . not even for me. Louis L'Amour wrote eighty-nine novels, and I would be willing to bet that my grandfather read every one of them.
Which brings me to a point from an interesting full circle. I am an avid, voracious reader, like my grandfather, and I have been for as long as I can remember. I've easily read thousands of books over my lifetime, some over and over. And although my husband is a wonderfully literate person (his father and his wife are English teachers:), reading has never been his greatest passion, with the exception of a few authors. He likes the political plots of Jeffrey Archer. And he has mentioned to me many times that when he was growing up, he would while away his summers reading Louis L'Amour novels. So this past Christmas, I researched and tracked down the first three novels in a Louis L'Amour series (The Sackett's) for a nostalgic gift. I can't fathom WHY in a lifetime of inhaling words and novels and anthologies and camping out in bookstores -- and being familiar -- that I've never picked up a Louis L'Amour novel. The idea of a western genre would not have deterred me as I'm extremely eclectic in my tastes. I have devoured everything John Jakes and Allan Eckert ever wrote.
So I'm going to call this serendipity. Yesterday morning, I began my first Louis L'Amour novel. The very opening paragraph answered a question that I posed in my DNA blog a few weeks about my great-grandfather (Max's father) as I pondered the nature of a killer. It reads:
It was my devil's own temper that brought me to this grief; my temper and a skill with weapons born of my father's teaching. Yet without that skill I might have emptied my own life's blood upon the cobblestones of Stamford, emptied my body of blood . . . and for what?
Each man owes a debt to his family, his country, and his species to leave sons and daughters who will lead, inspire, and create. ~ Louis L'Amour