Almost exactly fifteen years ago, my father-in-law, Willy, took a decided turn for the worse. Willy’s wife, Evelyn, had nursed him for over five years, hardly leaving their apartment except for necessary errands.
That fall, my husband, Ralf, was getting ready to leave for Germany to guest lecture at the university in Ludwigsburg. Just two weeks before Ralf was to leave the United States, Willy was hospitalized. Because of his father’s illness he planned to go to Hagen, first, where his parents lived.
Ten days before Ralf’s departure, Evelyn, called to let us know that Willy had become unresponsive. He did not recognize anyone, even his own wife. He could not talk. Still, Evelyn told us, he might come out of his present state.
We knew Ralf would be leaving soon. We assumed we had time.
Evelyn called five days later. Ralf wasn’t home; he was at UNC Charlotte, teaching. Willy had just hours, she told me, not days to live.
“It’s too late,” she told me.
I began making calls.
First, to a travel agent, to get Ralf on a flight that night. Then, Ralf’s colleagues, who would need to take over his final classes at UNCC. Then, finally, when I knew he had finished teaching, I called Ralf at his office.
“Ralf,” I said. “Willy is dying. Come home right away, honey,” I added. “You have a flight out of Charlotte tonight at 7 p.m.”
“I’ll never make it,” he said.
“Yes, you will,” I said. “Everything is taken care of. It’s all arranged. Colleagues will teach for you next week. I’ve started packing your suitcase. Come home.”
By the time Ralf was home, all he had to gather up were any academic materials he needed to teach in Germany.
“I can’t focus,” he said. His hands were shaking.
He was at the airport that night with half an hour to spare. I calculated the flight time to Frankfurt, the train trip to Hagen, the taxi drive home, the trip to the hospital. What were the chances that Ralf could make it to Willy’s bedside before he died?
I don’t know what role chance played. I do know that when Willy saw his son, his eyes cleared; his face came alive. It was the first time he had responded to anything or anyone for many days.
Later, Ralf joked with his father and told him, “This will teach you to stop smoking.” Willy managed to lift an eyebrow and breathe something like a laugh.
He died that night.
Ralf came home a few weeks later, after taking care of the funeral, the paperwork, and his mother. He had to drive twelve hours each weekend to and from Ludwigsburg where he was teaching and Hagen. He did all this with pneumonia in both lungs. There was no time for his own grief.
He was quiet and calm when he returned. When I asked him how he was feeling, he would say that he was all right. It wasn’t, after all, as if we hadn’t expected it.
Two years later, I walked into our kitchen to find my husband leaning over the counter, his hands covering his face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I can’t explain it,” he said, looking up. His face was drawn. “It’s ridiculous. So long afterwards.”
Then Ralf told me. The night Willy died Evelyn wanted to leave the hospital. Ralf wanted to stay. It was very late; she had practically lived in that room for days. Ralf was torn between his exhausted mother’s exhaustion and the look in his father’s eyes.
“I can’t forget his eyes,” Ralf told me. “Pleading.”
For two years, Ralf had punished himself for leaving his father, following his mother out the door, and driving her home.
We arrive at Yom Kippur filled with regrets. If we had only had more time. If we had only said these words, not those. If only….
Give us a few moments to reflect on the past year, and we will recall the priorities we ignored, the hopes we did not honor, the needs we repressed. Yes, we failed to do all that we longed to do.
How might we honor the regrets of the last year? They came straight from our hearts, which are now sore and wounded. How do we free ourselves from the weight of “might have” and “should have”?
Our regrets come from our longings.
Let us discern our heart’s longings. May we know compassion – from ourselves and from others, and from the Holy One of all Blessing, who, our Torah tells us, once promised us blessing simply for appearing at the Tabernacle to ask for it.
You let me sing, you lifted me up, you gave my soul a beam to travel on. You folded your distance back into my heart. You drew the tears back to my eyes. You hid me in the mountain of your word. You gave the injury a tongue to heal itself. You covered my head with my teacher’s care, you bound my arm with my grandfather’s strength. O beloved speaking, O comfort whispering in the terror, unspeakable explanation of the smoke and cruelty, undo the self-conspiracy, let me dare the boldness of joy. (Leonard Cohen, Psalm 19)
May we turn from regret to joy: Joy in the offer of forgiveness and understanding. Joy in the opportunities ahead to live a life of love and hope and kindness.
May we know the boldness of joy.