Peter** had the hands of a man who had spent decades working the earth and reaping its fruit. A farmer of potatoes and lavender, who knew how to till the ground and nourish the soil. He was a man who loved his wife, who, even years after she died, kept the doilies and flowery pictures up on the wall and the bright pink carpet on the floor of the sitting room.
Peter was a boy during the Nazi Occupation of Jersey during World War II. He let me sit with him, among the doilies and flowery pictures, my feet pressing into his soft pink carpet, and interview him about what his life was like.
“It is not so much that we had a dreadful time of it,” Peter told me, “It was living in the fear that we didn’t know what was going to happen next.”
Jersey was a prize for Hitler, a nine by five mile chunk of British soil he could wave around as propaganda. He did not want to lose the Channel Islands, so he sent over troops to outnumber the islanders, four to one. Then he decided troops were not enough; he needed bunkers, walls, and towers to defend himself, so he sent over prisoners of war to build them. Nearly 16,000 men, women and children, mainly Russian and Polish were shipped over and worked into the ground on an island that, until then, was a vacation destination that saw little, if any, crime.
It must have been terrifying for a boy whose life circled around the rhythmic pattern of the seasons of the crops and the way of the tides to be abandoned by English troops, and then to be invaded by the enemy: Nazi Germany. Watching the Germans march starving Russians through the street, their eyes panicked and rib cages protruding, the islanders thought this could happen to me.
So they protected themselves the best way they knew. They kept a close watch over their crops, their chickens, their homes, and when the Russians, out of hunger and desperation, started pillaging their farms in the dark of the night for something to eat, they chased them off with wooden bats. Desperation feeds desperation, and some of the islanders were scared enough to believe in their minds that the Russians had to be stopped, that they were part of the problem.
Peter wasn’t proud of what he’d done when he told me. It wasn’t a heroic story, but it was a real story, and saying it, out loud, seemed to set him free from it, for just a little bit. War can make a person do things they never would otherwise, good or bad, and in war things carry enough weight to still be thinking about years or decades later.
It was the regret that I walked away with after my interview with Peter. It was the wishing you could go back as you are now and tell the person you were then not to do that thing they were about to do, the thing they thought was important and necessary, because wars end and crops grow but memories are very difficult to erase.
My younger sister is a hospice social worker. While the rest of us fill our days doing the things and jobs that will enhance our lives, she spends her working hours among the dying. I cannot imagine a harder way to spend my day than shepherding people out of this life; doing her best to ensure that a person’s final hours are filled with grace, dignity, and a comforting presence. Yet every morning, my sister puts on her Clark’s boots, her hospice badge, and meets people in their darkest hours, family members who are going through the very hardest thing. I cannot imagine a person better suited for this job—Amy has a kindness and empathy that stretches farther than most; she has the perspective to see that, in those final moments, when a person hallucinates , or speaks in gibberish, or can no longer control their bladder, that they are still every bit a human deserving of respect.
People die differently, she told me. Some grip and claw at their breath, trying to squeeze and hold on for every last moment—they die with so much left undone and unresolved. Some on their death beds are still naming regrets, still clinging to bitterness or an injustice done to them. But some die peacefully, with hands open and family members around them, ready to close this chapter and move onto the next. How people die is often a reflection of how they lived.
How do you have to live so that you may die well? And what is inside me that I cannot let go of?
Two weeks ago, I sat on a battlefield at Gettysburg with two of my best friends, enjoying a picnic lunch where so many men too young to die gave their lives for a cause. We talked over crackers and cheese about regret, about longings unfulfilled, about what you are supposed to do when you are not at the place in life you hoped you would be by now.
How do you move forward when you carry around with you a pocket full of regret?
We, all of us, are eternal souls, and what we do has weight, yes, and a heftiness sometimes too strong for our own shoulders, but maybe we give our choices more weight than they deserve. Maybe we hold on to a thing for too long after the door was shut, lock was turned. Maybe we think our actions are so important that we obsess over them— and suddenly what we do or where we live or who we marry or are we successful carry a burden they were never made to, and we feel bitterness, regret, when we don’t measure up to our dreams.
And really, who of us measures up to the person in their dreams?
We beat ourselves up over past hurts, mistakes, we hold grudges against others that run our souls dry, and grace pours rain around us but we refuse to let it in. I wonder how Peter would feel if he allowed himself to be forgiven. I wonder how Amy’s hospice patients would feel as they crossed death’s door, knowing they were forgiven.
I wonder how my life would change if I lived like I am forgiven.
I sat on that Gettysburg field with two of the best friends I think I’ll ever know—women who are gracious, smart, talented, funny, who have walked with me for so much of life. We realized, on that field, that part of our job as friends is to remind each other that by God’s grace, we are forgiven of the things that keep us up at night. It’s our job to refuse to let resentment grow like moss on the doors of one another’s souls. These, for me, are the women who will help me live well, so that one day, I may die well.
None of us are immune to doing things we regret. We are a communal people, and it is our job to remind each other of the good in us and the grace of God. it is our job to take one another’s pain and point it to the cross that breathes out all things new.
**Name changed to protect privacy.