Short Story: One Last Regret

by Steve George on November 18, 2013

I wrote this story for a Writer’s Digest contest. Let me know what you think.

“Do you have any regrets?” she asked, lifting his gnarly fist, gently fitting her hand inside fingers he could no longer straighten. She traced the wormy veins on the back of his hand, awaiting an answer.

“Grandpa?”

“Yes,” he said, the word so soft it barely punctured the air.

She studied his face, searching clear blue eyes that seemed as deep as the sky and nearly as empty. She was unsure if he meant he would answer her or that he had regrets. Her mother would not pursue it, but then, her mother would never ask the question.

“Yes you have regrets?”

“Don’t you?”

Lila did. She would rather talk about his.

“What’s your biggest one? What do you think of first?”

He lay on his back in the hospice bed, covered by a light, burgundy blanket, a white sheet folded neatly across the top. His right arm rested on his stomach, pinning the sheet and blanket to his chest. He stared at the ceiling. His mouth was open, unmoving, his breathing almost imperceptible. Lila stroked his left hand, afraid he would die, was dead, and she wouldn’t know it.

“Kept too much to myself,” he said, his voice still deep, now stronger. When she was a child, people told her she looked just like her grandfather, and she beamed. She hadn’t seen it then, didn’t see it in old photographs, and she could see nothing of herself in his face now, not in the sunken cheeks or the wrinkled forehead or the thinning hair.

“I thought you liked being alone.”

“I did,” he said. He blinked in slow motion. “Usually.”

She had misunderstood him. He let it go. He replayed moments when he chose solitude over companionship. His head filled with memories he could not pin down except for the feelings they carried. Lila wiped a tear from the corner of his eye, a tear that had more to do with a failing body than any regrets. She kissed his cheek and winked and her face, the act, her caring eyes evoked such an image of his wife, Rae, dead now seventeen years, that he gasped. I never wanted to be this alone, he thought. Rae understood that. Lila swept more tears away.

“You’re not going to get all maudlin on me, are you?” she said, smiling. “I hadn’t planned on being your mother confessor.”

“Hmph. So you want the juicy stuff.”

“You have juicy stuff?”

“I haven’t always been a grandpa.”

Lila sat back in her chair but did not release her grandfather’s hand. With her free hand she tucked her long dark hair behind her ears. She tugged at the sleeve on her light pink blouse. She crossed her legs. She decided she did not want the juicy stuff.

The corners of her grandfather’s mouth twitched. His blue eyes brightened. She knew what he was doing.

“You’re teasing me,” she said, squeezing his hand. “You’re bad.”

Not even close, he thought. On a badness scale of 1 to 10, he figured he was a 2. He regretted not being able to nudge that number up, thought sadly of all the opportunities he had missed. That conference with the flirty blonde he had left at the door to her room. The parties his friends celebrated while he stayed sober. Waiting politely in lines. Paying bills on time. Buying sensible everything. Giving in to Rae. He had always, always been the “good egg.” He wondered what would have happened if he had cracked the shell. Another regret.

He sensed his daughter, Maryanne, before he could see her, felt the pressure in the room change as she marched in, breathlessly describing her adventure getting a cup of coffee. Sixty years of drama, a volatile disturbance in his tranquil life.

“How you doin’, Dad?”

“He was about to spill the juicy stuff when you came in,” Lila said.

“Not about me, I hope.”

“You’ve got juicy stuff too?”

“I haven’t always been a mom.”

The words, the similar reaction from father and daughter, comforted Lila. She had felt unfettered when she left home for college, had relished the freedom, bouncing like a pinball between new experiences. Eventually, it wore her out. She started showing up again at family gatherings. She mended fences with her mother, gradually regained her moorings. To her surprise, she built a grown-up friendship with her grandfather.

“So what were you two talking about?” Maryanne asked.

“I asked grandpa if he had any regrets.”

“Lila! Really. Now?”

Maryanne plopped on the bed by her father’s legs and rested a hand on his knee. She wondered if she was one of his regrets and studied his face as if it might provide a clue. She had never really understood him. When she was mad at him she wondered why her mother had married him, her energetic, effusive mother seemingly shackled by this calm, quiet man. She had destroyed that calm more than once growing up, had seen the steel beneath the façade, had stirred things up just to feel closer to him.

“Any regrets, Manny?” her father said, using his term of endearment. His vibrant voice gave her momentary hope that death was busy elsewhere.

“None I’m sharing with you two.”

It was quiet again, then. Three generations lost in their regrets. He tried to move his head to observe them but could not. He would not close his eyes, not yet, not for the last time.

“Turn my head so I can see you two,” he said.

Lila looked at her mother expectantly.

“Sure, Dad,” Maryanne said. She rose from the bed and leaned over her father, sliding her fingers gently under his head and turning it to face Lila. He caught Lila’s eye and she sobbed so unexpectedly it surprised her. He tried to squeeze her hand to comfort her but his fingers would not respond.

Maryanne straightened and rested a hand on Lila’s shoulder. She wondered why she wasn’t sobbing, too. She tried to imagine life without her father but she could not, not after sixty years.

“I know what I’ll regret,” she said, catching her father’s eye, trying to distract her daughter. “I’ll regret it if I got Mom’s genes. She was only 72 when she passed. Seems to me that 72’s just around the corner.”

She held his eyes long enough that he felt like he was squirming even though he knew he could not. He wondered if she knew. For the thousandth time, the hundred-thousandth time, he thought he should tell her. Rae had insisted they not, had been adamant even on her deathbed. “It can only hurt her,” she had said, the same impenetrable argument she had made for their daughter’s entire life.

He could not escape this final regret any more than he could escape his failing body. Rae never wanted Maryanne to know the name of her biological father, which meant his daughter would be blindsided by whatever medical time bombs had been planted by the man who had impregnated Rae. It was the case he had made for decades in a debate he had always lost, yet even in these last days, in these last minutes, he could not decide which way was best, which choice he would die regretting.

His eyes narrowed as he tried to trace the arguments to their ancient roots. He opened his mouth to speak but, even at this late hour, did not know what to say. Maryanne noticed the tension in his face and the turmoil in his eyes and she leaned over and rested her head against his.

“It’s okay, Dad,” she said, stroking his hair, trying to calm him. She knew the secret he carried. Her biological father had tracked her down when Lila was born and told her. She had banished him from her life. He was a sperm donor, not her father.

She had never told her parents that she knew even when she was maddest at them, even when she wanted to hurt them. She thought of her silence as punishment for theirs. She realized how silly she had been.

“I know about Ben,” she whispered. She kissed her father’s cheek. She straightened and saw the relief in his eyes, and the question.

“It never mattered, Dad. I love you.”

He studied her face to confirm her claim and found no reason to doubt her.

“You’re my girl,” he said, and then, to Lila, “My girls.” His regret lifted like an anchor at the start of a voyage. He closed his eyes.

Lila wanted to ask her mother what that had been about. Instead, she stroked her grandfather’s fingers while reaching for her mother’s hand, holding on to her family.

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