Saturday, August 12, 2017

One Decision

I've been meaning to write this post for a while as it has been weighing on my mind, but life happens and there's always something more important to do. To be honest, looking at my To-Do List is too daunting at the moment, so I'm shoving it aside and spending some time blogging. I like sitting here while the kids are watching Jake and the Netherland Pirates because I know that the movie lasts an hour and a half so I am pretty much guaranteed a small respite from "mommy mommy mommy MOMMY."

The reason for the weight on my mind is this. Last month I was sitting at my desk, in the same place I am now, feeling sad, remembering my mom. The world didn't care. Life went on, oblivious to my pain, so in order to prevent the downward spiral of sadness, I decided to go for a walk. After walking for a while I sat down on a bench in the park, thinking about my mom and I heard an old voice ask if he could join me. I smiled and made some space even though there was plenty of room for both of us. He sat down with a sigh and we were both lost in thought for a while. Soon we got chatting and the man with the kind face told me his name was Rudi and he was 90 years young. I was immediately drawn to this man who was double my age (everyone knows I have a soft spot for the oldies - see my previous post 50 Shades of Grey if you haven't seen it yet.)  After a while of chatting I asked him my favourite question that I love to pose to older people, do you have any regrets? And he told me this story that has stuck with me:

He too was sad that day. It was the birthday of the love of his life who had passed 18 months before. I asked if they had been married long and he stopped me. "It wasn't like that" he said, drifting off. He explained that he had been sitting at home remembering Marie on her birthday and he didn't know what to do with the sadness that he felt, so he had phoned her daughter. I was confused but kept listening. He had decided to phone her daughter so that he could hear Marie's voice in hers. It hadn't taken much to set her daughter off and they had cried together in their shared grief. Rudi told her daughter that the way she said certain things and the way she laughed reminded him so much of Marie. It made her daughter feel better hearing that. I was intrigued. Who was Marie and why was he phoning her daughter after she had died?

So I asked him quite bluntly "what happened between yourself and Marie?"

He got a far away look in his eye and told me that he had met Marie when she was 18 and he was 23. They had known each other for 68 years. "I asked her to marry me" he smiled shyly, "but she refused." I asked him why she refused to marry him and he laughed and explained that although there was very little money in her family, Marie was a bit of a princess and her mom had always doted on her. He gave an example of how her mom would wake Marie with coffee, ask which outfit she had chosen to wear and then her mom would rush off with the chosen outfit to press it while Marie got herself ready for work. Marie would arrive in the kitchen to a fully cooked breakfast but would always be on some diet, so she would pick at a few things and leave the rest. He believed that the first time he proposed, Marie was too young and didn't want to move out of home as she wasn't ready to have her own home and family. She was too spoiled and enjoyed her mother's attention.

The first time? How many times did he propose? This was getting interesting.

He explained that they would date for a while, then fight and break up and get back together again (sounds like a Taylor Swift song.) They were in the same friendship group and all got on well and it just seemed like the next step. He had dated her for years and most of their friends, including Marie's sister who was younger, were engaged. He proposed again. This time she declined because of work. "She was always very focused on her career" he said sadly. "I told her that I wasn't going to wait for her and she told me that was fine." After the second rejection, he said he made a conscious decision to stop chasing her and cut off all contact. He was hurt. "Remember I was then a man in my 30"s and most men my age had married, settled down and started families already. The next time I saw Marie I was engaged to Talia." Marie was devastated.

What? Why? She had refused two proposals, what was her issue now?

She said that she had always assumed that Rudi would be there when she was ready to marry. "She asked me to break off my engagement but I refused saying that Talia was a kind, decent woman that I didn't want to hurt. Talia would make a good wife for me." Marie just had to accept that Rudi had moved on. Marie and Rudi remained close and Rudi told me about he two of them sitting in the living room of his parent's home, opening his and Talia's wedding presents together! He suddenly looked guilty and quickly added that he had had a good life with Talia, they'd had two children who had provided grandchildren and he said he really couldn't complain.

BUT........ then came the part that has haunted me......

"My girl, over the years I have thought back to that night where I refused Marie. I've always wondered about that decision. If I had said yes, where would my life have taken me? That one choice changed not only mine but a lot of other lives. I'm 90 years old now and I can't say I regret much, but I will always wonder about Marie. She was the one that got away. She was the one that, I allowed to get away. I sent her away because I felt it was the right thing to do but truthfully it was because I was too proud to break my engagement after she had rejected me twice. What would that have said about me as a man?"

My heart broke for him. His honour, pride and commitment to his fiance led him to make a decision that he has regretted, to some degree, for his whole life! Logically he knew that he shouldn't be sad because if he had married Marie, his family would not be here or if it was, it would be very different. His experience would be different, his children's personalities would be different. It was a weird thing to wrap your mind around. One decision.

I had to ask "what happened to Marie?"

"After I married she moved from her home town of Cape Town to pursue a career opportunity in Johannesburg, where she met and married a lovely man. They settled in Johannesburg and had four children." Over the years Marie was in contact with Rudi and Talia and Marie's children called him Uncle Rudi which seemed to please him. "They knew we were old friends and that we grew up together. We had so many people in common. Marie confided in me that her kids used to tease her about me." He laughed. Rudi and his family moved to Durban and Marie and her family visited them once or twice and Marie and Talia used to talk on the phone from time to time, they seemed to get on well.

Rudi didn't go into it, but I wondered, how did Talia feel about this? She must have felt that her husband loved someone else. She must have known that she was not the one, his one. She was not the love of his life, Marie was. It must have had some effect on their marriage, perhaps unspoken. How sad. Perhaps it was the same in Marie's marriage, a negative undercurrent of regret.

Many years later Marie's husband passed away. Rudi and Talia had since moved to Johannesburg as their children were grown and they wanted to be close to their grandchildren. "A few months after Marie's husband's death I went to see her one night." I leaned in, this story had me mesmerized. "I proposed for a third time." No way!! I was gobsmacked! Was he going to leave his wife for Marie after all that time?

"I remember asking her if she would be with me. I was prepared to leave Talia. She just shook her head and told me that our time of being together had passed. She would never be able to live with herself if she broke up my family. I was already 67 years old. We could have had 23 amazing years together, but again she rejected my proposal and broke my heart. Turns out third time isn't lucky for me! I don't know if it was too soon after her husband's death, but she was adamant. Marie told me then that she would never marry again and she stayed true to her word. Only afterward did I realise the gift she had given me. What would have happened if she had agreed? I would have lost everything that is dear to me."

I told Rudi that his story made me sad and he again mentioned that he had had a good life and he really loved his family. I said that I was happy that talking to Marie's daughter had given him some sense of comfort over this sad time. Then he said something that I found very strange. He told me that he felt bad because he had told Marie's daughter not to contact him. I was surprised. If she had given him some comfort, surely they should stay in touch as it seemed to help them both through the difficult memories. Rudi tried to explain "it would make things very difficult on my side, if you know what I mean."

The reality of the situation hit me hard. This frail, sad, 90 year old man was making a "skelm" call to the deceased love of his life's daughter, on her birthday, just to have some sense of feeling close to the lady that he had loved all his life, but who he could never have. He was running the gauntlet for a second hand conversation with an almost stranger, trying to ease the pain of his loss, by listening to her voice, imagining it to be the girl he remembered so well but knowing that it would upset his wife if she found out. He still was being held back, unable to do what he wanted to do, phone who he wanted to phone due to social constraints and I would imagine years of hurt over this issue, so he was hiding the call from  her. He was still doing the right thing. This saddened me even more.

But as sad as I felt for him, my mind kept going to his wife. Think about this from Talia's perspective, how would you feel if your husband of almost 60 years, was still so desperate to be close to the woman who rejected him all those years ago, that he was phoning her daughter to try to get a glimpse of what he had had with her all those years ago. It was ludicrous. A lose-lose situation.

Rudi looked at me with tears in his eyes, patted my hand and said "I'll always wonder about that decision. But to answer your question, I'm not sure if it is a regret per se because I have gained so much, but I will always wonder what if....."

After that conversation I couldn't stop thinking about what Rudi had told me and how it related to my own life. I've never shied away from making decisions, even difficult ones, in fact I enjoy taking a road and seeing where it goes. There are very few choices I regret. In fact I've made some massive ones that have been really positive and if I think back, if I had chosen differently, the results would most certainly have left me worse off. So it is mind-boggling to me that just one wrong decision can literally change your life and your life's trajectory as well as the lives of those around you. We are all a product of all of our choices. Every opportunity you took, every opportunity you were too scared to take, every date you went on, every date you were too tired to go on, every job you applied for, every job you thought you wouldn't get so didn't apply for, is imprinted on the embroidery of your life.

Each day we take decisions that can make or break us. This is great news because if we are unhappy where we are, we are only one decision away from changing it, even though it can be scary. Fortunately I have never made a decision like Rudi because I know that it would eat me up inside always wondering what might have been.

Life lessons from a 90 year old. Thanks Rudi x