Regrets for the Life Undone
Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Life in the Third Degree.
“Let’s go out sometime,” he says yet again on the phone, and the earnestness in his voice says he means it even though it never happens.
“I just need to get my schedule figured out so I can have some time off…,” he tells me one more time on one more night when he’s worked until midnight.
“My career is kicking my ass,” he explains when he can’t make it to dinner because of an unexpected deadline. “I have absolutely no free time, and I could let my career take up my whole life if I let it.”
I hate to tell him, but he’s already there. The 15-hour days, seven days a week are taking their toll on his life—his attitude, his health, and his personal relationships. He’s lost his balance, but it’ll be a while before he sees that. And it may be too late when he does. Right now, he’s feeling that he has no choice but to focus on work and nothing but work.
“Fuck him,” my friends say, and they don’t mean that in the physical sense. Okay, the ones who’ve seen him do….
“Don’t shut down other men who are interested in you,” Vicki tells me, and I haven’t. I’ve been asked to lunch by two other very intelligent and attractive men from the office in the past week, and I’ve agreed with an open mind and an open heart.
Who has time for men who don’t have time for you? Been there.
But it’s actually my daughter who urges me not to shut down my overworked night owl. Like me, she sees that we have too much in common to ignore the possibilities.
And I do understand. That’s probably why I still talk to the guy. I’m understanding because I’ve been there, too. I’ve worked the 100-hour weeks, too. I’ve lived off of adrenaline and the stress of somebody’s-gonna-die-if-I-screw-up situations, too. I know. I know.
Vicki’s dad once told her that if you get to the end of your life and you can count your true friends on one hand and have at least one finger sticking up, then you can consider yourself fortunate. (And I do, because I’m incredibly blessed to have a friend like Vicki.) Laverne, from the writers’ critique group I was part of in the ‘90’s, told me that on our death beds, we don’t think about work and money and status but about our friends and family.
They’re right. Several years ago when my dad was in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit after a heart bypass, I saw firsthand how dying men thought of their lives. None of them said, “Oh, I wish I’d put in more time at work,” or “Oh, I wish I’d gotten one more promotion.” No. But what they did say shared a recurring theme: “I wish I’d spent more time with my family and friends.” Those exact words, again and again, expressed the one outstanding regret among old men who’d been successful businessmen and now felt they had nothing to show for it.
Probably the biggest regret I have is that I was so focused on work when my daughters were babies. My older daughter was three months old and accompanied me to work in her infant carrier on Saturdays while I developed an acquisition strategy for a new bomb fuze just prior to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Saudi Arabia; my husband was too busy with his own banking career and we had no one who could watch her on weekend, so I took her and her diaper bag to the Munitions Lab.
With my younger daughter, I remember hunkering over in premature labor at the corner of my office building while I waited for my legal counsel to drive by and pick up a file I’d prepared as part of an investigation I’d initiated against a defense contractor who had overcharged the U.S. Government by millions of dollars. I remember that I was doubled over, wondering who would arrive first: a lawyer who really didn’t understand why he had to meet me right now or the bank employee my husband had sent to take me to Labor and Delivery.
I remember hobbling into work on my maternity leave and signing all sorts of important documents while one of my engineers—with a sidearm strapped to his hip because of the security required for the technology we were working with—held my two-week-old baby and made chipmunk noises that didn’t faze her but entertained the rest of us.
But of all my regrets from those days, I think it’s all the things I don’t remember that bother me most. To have the incredible long-term memory I have and not remember…first steps, first words, favorite toys, first foods, favorite places we went…it now tears my heart out. I can’t remember so much of what I did with my girls when they were tiny, even though they’re captured beautifully in photographs I took.
And yet, I remember every single weapons program I worked on, who was on the team with me, how many millions of dollars we negotiated (by fiscal year, for Pete’s sake!), which special clauses we put in those contracts, who our counterparts were at the defense contractors’ plants, the safe combinations to our classified files, which VIP signed the acquisition strategy, the look in my adversary’s eyes when I told him there was no way in hell I would ever agree to the number he’d pulled out of his ass and that our negotiation was over and goodbye. Oh, yes, I remember all that clearly and in great detail.
With my girls, what I remember most that isn’t in any way connected to my career in those days—those days before a back injury derailed me from the fast track—are the nights when I held my little girl close to my chest, her cheek damp and curls sweaty from lying so long and sleepy on my shoulder, her rosebud mouth open and long-lashed eyes closed, and us rocking, rocking, rocking in the old recliner. I don’t even have to close my eyes to call up those memories. Those come unbidden and sweet. I can still feel the weight of their little bodies on my chest, the closeness, the depth of love. I had so much other work to do, but those brief moments were like a drug to me that kept me going.
But what keeps my friend going on these long days and nights when he buries himself in his work or it buries him?
I’m determined not the let that happen to me again. It’s so easy, given my codependent tendencies, to fall into that pattern of taking care of everything at work when we’re undermanned and the work must get done. I cannot let myself lose my balance again and focus solely on work. I will doggedly make sure I spend time with my kids, with my friends, with my non-career interests. It’s hard. And if I find a relationship budding, I will nurture it, even if it means I won’t get all my work finished (I never get it all finished anyway, do I, no matter how long or hard I work?). I will make time for the things that are important to me, and I’ll make certain the people I love know they’re important to me. I will be more social, and I’ll have people over, even when the house is a mess, because it’s senseless to have a clean house that I can’t fully enjoy because I’ve spent my precious free time cleaning rather than growing friendships.
During my divorce proceedings, my ex once blamed the loss of our closeness in the early years on the part-time business we owned and the hours he’d put into making it work and how it had all been for the good of the family. If he hadn’t been so focused on work, he would’ve spent more time where he should have been. Though I don’t remember the part-time business as being where he spent that much of his time—his career got the bulk of his days and his computer friends got the weekend nights—he did at least recognize that he spent his time on his work and not on his family. And he, like so many of men, probably now wonders what happened to his relationships.
“Ignore me,” I told my ex one post-honeymoon night when I’d prepared a candlelight dinner—and served it while in my lingerie, only to have him wolf it down without a word and go back to work for the next five hours—“Ignore me, and I’ll go away.”
I didn’t, but our relationship did.
I wonder if my overworked night owl will look back in ten years when he’s just getting done with his mid-life crisis and his business is a huge success and if he’ll wonder whatever happened to that girl he used to love to talk to when he was winding down from a long and brutal day.
I wonder if he’ll try to find me and discover I’m happy with someone else and have no time or inclination to converse with him longer than a walk down memory lane.
I wonder if after all the things he’s accomplished, he’ll have any regrets for the girl he didn’t do.