A Neighbor’s Death—and a Few Regrets

James Fu

James Fu, Holding the Harvest

“What might have been” can seem like the saddest words. They are kin to “If only” and “I should have” and other regrets that any person might muse over, founded on moments like not asking out the attractive girl in high school, not speaking up in the meeting when your idea is stolen by your rival, not reconciling with your sister over a long-dead argument—and not having a chance to reconcile when she herself dies.

I am reminded of those sad words because my neighbor James, the fellow in the photo above, died suddenly the other day. We’ve lived next door to James and May for 14 years, and from the earliest days, they have fulfilled the blessing of the term “good neighbors.” May is the orchid cloner who has given us many strikingly beautiful plants, James the retired professor, with whom I had random discussions about things in the neighborhood and other forgotten trivialities.

We often saw the couple when they walked through our rural neighborhood, and always exchanged good greetings in brief chats. Though elderly and not in good health, his death was a shock. And only afterwards did I realize that for years, just next door was a retired literature professor, and I’d never once spoken to him of books, of my own love of words. Why had that never occurred to me?

A Trailer Full of Writers

If I look out my kitchen window, I can see an old yellow trailer in their yard. It’s big: it is probably 35 feet long, up on concrete blocks. It’s filled with James’s collection of books. Of course, most of them are probably in Chinese—he taught on Taiwan, where he was raised, and where he met May. His English wasn’t great, but it was good enough to ask him, “What writers did you love? Did you write fiction yourself?” I love many writers, I write fiction—it amazes me now that I never thought to ask.

So, this isn’t a prescription for right living, me pointing my finger and saying “Mark my words: speak up, take action, make the call—before it’s too late.” No, it’s more a soft cloud of regret, mixed with a little surprise—why had I never asked?

Rest in peace James. You were a good man, and I am honored to have been your neighbor, and I hope, your friend.

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11 thoughts on “A Neighbor’s Death—and a Few Regrets

  1. Superb post, Tom. You struck a nerve with this reader, perhaps even a pulpal one.

    I could have met Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader in 1979. He was an RAF Battle of Britain pilot, later shot down over France and held as a POW. And he had lost his legs in a flying accident before the war- one below the knee, one above. The man never gave up; after his injuries, he learned to walk, he learned to fly, he even learned to dance and golf. And he taught others to do so as well.

    In 1979, my dad and I were being driven in a rental car by a mechanic who knew Bader. We were about to pass his house. Knowing of how I had read his biography and seen the film (“Reach for the Sky”), he asked, “Would you like to pop in and have a word?”

    I was terrified. I didn’t know what I would say to the great man; I was only 18 years old. I said no, I couldn’t possibly.

    That’s one of the great regrets of my life. And I have others. I can also think of the times I got it right. My grandmother, the most remarkable human being I’ve ever known personally, was 101 when she passed away and we visited often and asked her thousands of questions about the things she had seen and experienced in her lifetime.

    There are soft clouds of regret. (Thanks for that lovely phrase, Tom.) There are also hard cement pavements of regret, upon which we sometimes smash ourselves. There are also broad, sunlit uplands (Churchill’s haunting phrase) of joy when we connect and, out of that connection, manage to learn, or change things.

    I’m going to try my best to live the rest of my life in those uplands.

  2. Beautiful story Tom. Life is full of missed opportunities it seems. This is a topic I’ve been pondering for some time now. One of the joys of reading is when the writer so eloquently expresses and organizes the chaos in my mind.
    Makes me glad I made myself go out last night, later than I wanted to, into a situation that wasn’t totally comfortable, but was rewarding in ways I could not forsee.
    I thought it was about photography but in the end it was about connecting. And your story has opened my eyes to this.

  3. Rick, who could really fault you for not having the presence of mind to talk to Bader. You were 18—authoritative command over your actions at that stage is pretty hit and miss. I remember a chance I had to talk to Elgin Baylor, who was the Michael Jordan of his day, outside the Lakers locker room when I was 12 or so. I intended to tell him how much of a wizard he was, but could only gape as he walked by.

    But it’s lovely that you were able to sift time’s sands with your grandmother; she undoubtedly received as much grace from those exchanges as you did. So yes, let’s point—and impel ourselves toward—those sunlit uplands; regret is such a waste of time. (And not nearly as much fun as having committed to a worthy course.)

  4. Penny, I am a serial resister: I’m always the one saying or telling myself: “No, I’ll stay home,” “Sure, that sounds good, but maybe some other time,” or “Right, but only when I’m ready.” The results of that waffling are none: I gain nothing.

    So I understand what you say about taking a venture or a chance: sure, sometimes nothing comes of it, but sometimes there’s a wonderful serendipity in simply saying “Yes.”

    I’ve always loved this quote, which has been attributed to Goethe, but of which apparently only the last lines are his:

    “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.

    A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

  5. Nice words. I didn’t regret reading this, Tom. Thank you for putting them together for us.

    Last week I had the opportunity to attend a funeral of a guy I didn’t know, but I had worked with his wife peripherally. It was a tragic story where he died suddenly of a heart attack in his sleep at age 52. He was very athletic, played a lot of soccer, worked for a sports gear company, and left 3 teenage kids.

    I only knew her through common acquaintances, but I felt it was important to support her. She was stoic, very well grounded, and didn’t cry hysterically (during the entire service) but I think it was a good decision for me to go.

    I missed some meetings at work, but it’s funny how death puts things into perspective. Whatever troubles or stresses I thought I had, vanished.

  6. Rex, that’s a compassionate gesture on your part, particularly when you were removed from the inner circle of the grieving. I’m sure your being there was helpful to the families.

    Yeah, Death—quite the deal breaker, eh? It can make the late car payment, the aching knee or the exasperation with our political “leaders” seem a little less pressing.

    However, it’s so easy for me to return to my routines, and forget the lessons. Lucky for all of us, though, that Death won’t go anywhere soon—it will continue to offer these lessons in perpetuity.

  7. What a great post, Tom.

    Our relationships with other human beings, in the end, are what really matter. And it’s so easy to forget, especially with all the digital distractions we have nowadays.

    You make me think of a member of my congregation who recently moved away. I didn’t know her well, but one time had a chance to chat — and found out this elderly woman had written 8 books!

    I had a great-aunt and uncle who were always a mystery to me — they lived in an apartment in the old Jewish neighborhood in L.A., in Fairfax. After one family party my sister and I drove her home — and found out she used to be a court reporter in downtown L.A. “I was quite a gal!” she told us, before disappearing into the apartment no one was ever allowed to visit — turned out she and her husband were hoarders and the place was stacked to the ceiling with old newspapers and other flotsam.

    So many connections to find.

    Or as I used to say to my dad when he’d be ignoring us and watching basketball or golf on TV, “That television is not going to say Kaddish for you.”

  8. Carol, I appreciate your thoughts. There are “hidden” lives all around us: after-work basement painters, collectors of locked-away pre-Columbian curios, the adolescent who practices opera after school. Of course, you can’t just jump into everyone’s business, but it can be so amazing to have a conversation with any “ordinary” person and realize, of course, that their lives are extraordinary, and individual and meaningful.

    Love the “I was quite a gal!” statement. (And I hope your father started paying attention, dangit.)

  9. Beautiful post Tom. And so true. We all have regrets…and it often takes someone’s death before we’re prodded into contemplation of them. My life has been a mix of regrets, but more so recently. I began pondering regret – again – when my mother died in Feb. HER one big regret was never sailing the Tennessee Tom Bigbee Waterway. As soon as I learn to sail (May 20-25 is my week long live aboard sailing intensive) I’m buying a sailboat (Indiegogo willing) and sailing her ashes down the river. I have many regrets, but all of them things I didn’t do, not those I did. Good to think of things in that way I think…

  10. Becky, yes, one of those hard truths that we sometimes need a cosmic jolt to take us out of our everyday haze and mull over life decisions. I’ve read some of your stuff about your mom’s death and it’s moving and frank. I hope your journey goes well, and that it’s a healing one.

    And damn straight on the “things I didn’t do” source of pang. I am more aware of that one, as I turn more into a (cranky) old man. Trying to prevent more of those “wish I hads” from happening. Thanks for writing

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