Clarity of hindsight vs. in the moment
I have been having a strange recurring thought over the last few weeks. It isn’t a new thought, it’s more an occasional thought that has come up with previous experiences that become clearer in hindsight than they were in the actual moment.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking about not seeing something in a moment, and then realizing days later. I mean events that you have experienced, went through with planning and awareness, carefully considered things, thought about them before and afterwards, and then later, something twigs your memory and you think, “Huh. That’s weird.”
I have an experience with a friend from back in the day that didn’t go the way I had hoped. In fact, it ended the friendship. And I felt maybe if I had said x or y, maybe it would have changed things. Maybe I could have handled it differently. Taking responsibility for the outcome. Yet years later, I was reflecting on it after something twigged my memory, and it was suddenly so clear that I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t seen it before. It didn’t matter what I said or didn’t say, the outcome was already determined by them before I ever started the conversation. It was a stage play, I was just the only one thinking it was improv. Yet both before and afterwards, I had never thought about that as a likely or even possible interpretation. But when I thought of it, it was so obvious as to leave me thunderstruck. I reflect on my life daily. Yet such a basic realization had escaped me. Huh.
And sure, I know that there’s a body of literature out there that suggests these moments of clarity, or perhaps “new clarity” or realization, happen because the emotional content of the event has dissipated. Unblocking you from processing it more rationally. I get it, I can see it, I can even think in some instances that is likely what was happening. In part because when I thought back on it, I followed the same pathway into the event that got me there in the first place. But for the new realization, my memory was twigged in a different way, and I went back to the memory along a different path from normal. And thus literally gave myself a whole new perspective in coming upon the memory.
As a metaphor, it works. But it also works in reality for another memory I have had. We used to shop at a Towers store in Peterborough, which eventually became a Zellers and a Walmart. There is a grocery store attached which was a Dominion, and then I think a Food City, and either Food Basics or Price Choppers now, can’t remember. Anyway, when I was a kid, it was one of the two big box stores (the other being Kmart) where we would go to get Christmas presents, maybe some clothes (if it wasn’t Sears), etc. And yet I was thinking of the store one time and I could NOT picture what it looked like inside. I could picture the outside more or less, but I could not at all remember what the inside looked like. Until I remembered they had a different set of smaller doors on the other side of the store with a very small parking area, only one row. My mother ALWAYS parked over there. As soon as I remembered that, I could remember coming in that door, and voila, my memory was unlocked and I could remember where EVERYTHING in the store had been.
The metaphor for a similar revelation mostly works. If I go in one door, I follow the path as far as I can. Go in another door, a whole different path.
What event is playing with my brain?
In short, my wedding day. And more pointedly, the role of my mother in the wedding day. Going into the wedding day, I had several plans for how to avoid any drama with my family. I wasn’t worried about Andrea’s family, but mine has always been dysfunctional at the best of times. Add in formal settings, people being uncomfortable, everyone together, alcohol? Not a great combo.
So I planned ahead. I didn’t want any drama with my “best man” selection. I had a couple of early ideas, just to balance out Becky as Maid of Honour, but they didn’t work out, and I did NOT want any family drama. I don’t even know if there would have been any between brothers, as I have three main brothers and three more in-laws. I was close with my brother Bill when younger, then my brother Don in my teen years, and my brother Mike in my adult years. I spent a lot of time with my brother-in-law Ken when I was early teens, and Bob was a pretty comforting presence when my Dad died. And if I went with just “time” in recent years, that would be Dean who is a great guy all around. So I have six family members who could easily step up. Not to mention a nephew, Brian, who I was close to for a really long time, albeit not so much now that life has intervened and become more complicated. Chris would have done it too, so 8 right there. Before I even get to 3-4 friend choices. And I considered three before deciding it just wasn’t going to fit right. So I did it sans Best Man.
But then I got creative. I asked Mike and Bill to make a toast for my father to give them a role, and had Bill get me the drink for the toast plus scripted Mike so he wouldn’t get inappropriate. Don was tagged as an usher at the church, along with a close friend and a cousin. My sister Sharon covered off her family with a speech to welcome Andrea to the family in lieu of my mother, my sister Marie and her daughters helped out with decorations and Mom wrangling. A nephew and niece agreed to take some extra photos to supplement the official photographer’s collection.
Drama happened anyway, but for the most part, I kept it at bay and didn’t engage. Not my problem to worry about.
But early on, my biggest worry was not the drama but the impact on my mother. This would not be the first family event since my father had died, but it would be the most prominent one for him to miss. And she would be coming alone, so to speak. I also knew that she would want to pay for stuff that she couldn’t afford to pay for, and so early on, I made the decision that has messed with my head a bit in the last few weeks.
I let her completely off the hook.
I wanted zero pressure on her. So I made sure that she didn’t worry about organising or paying for a rehearsal dinner. She and my sisters did a shower, and she put a lot of work into that, which in retrospect, I wish I had paid more attention to her role in. My one sister tends to take over anything she’s involved in, cutting out others and ignoring their input, but I wish I had had a few moments alone with her afterwards to just sit and decompress and to thank her for it. She had a bad day that day, and she didn’t want me to pry, but she had invited a man to come that she had been sort of seeing. And he flaked on her. He called to apologize and she let him have it. He was attempting some BS about forgetting or whatever and she cut him off at the knees and told him she never wanted to hear from him again. She was alone, and she was feeling the letdown. But it wasn’t an area her and I could ever share, nor would she want me to try, and I let her off the hook on it. Now, with Jacob, I see how he reacts to things and even if he doesn’t want to talk about it, I want him to know that I see his pain, I know some of what he’s going through. Even if he chooses not to talk about it, I want him to know. With my mom, I knew, and I think she knew, but I’m not sure. But that’s not quite the right issue either, mostly just additional context to how far I could go and/or didn’t.
As the summer progressed, I was so focused on making sure she wasn’t feeling pressured, I don’t think I ever stopped to figure out areas where she might have been feeling pressured anyway. She came up for the cake tasting to help choose a cake, which I thought she might like. I consulted her on my ring choices. I talked to her about ties a bit.
But as I was processing the wedding photo galleries in recent weeks, a thought occurred to me. Andrea, like most brides, had her hair done that morning. Along with her sister Becky (as maid of honour) and her mom. What did my mom do? Now, remember, my mom was no spring chicken at this point, she was 81 years old. So we weren’t wanting to tire her out in an otherwise long day, but it never occurred to Andrea or I to see if she wanted to be part of that “outing”. I’m sure she would have said no, but it bothers me it never occurred to me.
Equally, my sister was insisting that my mother had to have a new dress, and my mom was not interested. So my sister went ahead and bought two dresses anyway so she could try them on. I thought it was overkill, my mom didn’t want a new dress and she was 81yo. Pretty sure she could make up her own mind about that.
But could she? Did she say no because she was feeling “out of it”? Of course, the mother of the groom would normally get a new dress. Particularly if she doesn’t have others hanging in her closet ready to go. She had one from a year or two before, but certainly for any other wedding in the family, she got a new dress. For mine, I was basically telling her she could wear whatever she wanted, to take the pressure off, but maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe I let her off the hook too much. She looked great, I loved her dress (one of the ones my sister suggested).
I got one thing right, at least sort of, anyway. When we were at the theatre, waiting for the event to start, and I was running around making sure everyone had what they needed — ushers, musicians, the Minister, greeting some guests — my mother was sitting for awhile by herself at the back of the theatre. I feel bad about something that happened that I didn’t do right.
Because I was the one getting married, I let my 5 siblings handle mom wrangling for the morning to get her to the theatre. I would look after getting her from the theatre to the picture taking, and from pictures to the boat, and one of the siblings would take her back to the hotel afterwards. It was covered, I didn’t have to worry about it.
But apparently, there was confusion at the hotel that morning. My mom was nervous walking over to the theatre (about 3 blocks), and being late, so she got ready early. She was in the lobby when one of my siblings came down to come over, and so she latched on for the escort and made it over to the theatre early. Unfortunately, my one sister had been planning on bringing her over and she didn’t know my mom left. So they were looking for her at the hotel, she wasn’t there, they were all freaking out, finally found out Mom had gone ahead, and she was ticked. After wrangling her, buying her a dress, getting her here, etc., my sister was pissed my mom was so ungrateful that she didn’t even tell them she was leaving to come without them. Frustrating, sure. I get it. Nerves, drama, blah blah blah. But she chose to lay into my mother about 15m before the wedding, with my mom sitting there by herself, feeling a bit lost, and thinking mostly about my late dad. I saw it and I did nothing. Not my church, not my pew, not my problem. Other people were wrangling my mother today.
Yet, of all the things in my life that could be a possible regret, however much I don’t believe in them, I regret that moment. I should have thrown down, kicked my sister’s ass to the curb and let her know, “No, on my wedding day, nobody gets to talk to my mother that way.” I know, I know, it was not my job to regulate their relationship, and my mother never needed my protection. She survived the Great Depression, WWII, had six kids and two miscarriages, buried almost all of her nine siblings, took care of her family, worked, and buried her husband. She had seen some shit in her life. My sister’s rant probably never raised a blip on her shit meter. But it bothered me. Even though I know that if I had reacted, my mom would have felt it was her fault for not waiting originally.
Anyway, I’ve thought about all of this before, then and since, and except for the hair or dress, all of those things were already known. But I missed an opportunity right after that event. Or more accurately, I didn’t take as much time with her as I should have. We went over to the side of the theatre, out of prying eyes, to have a small “us” moment.
She brushed my jacket with a lint brush, helped check my hair etc.. It was nice, but it was only one of three short moments we really had all day. In retrospect, I kind of wished I had an extra 30m in there to just sit and chat about nothing before the ceremony started instead of having to rush around. Maybe even, gasp, play a game of cribbage or something. Just a quiet ritual for the two of us.
Later, during the formal pictures, we did have a small moment while other shots were being taken where I gently mentioned Dad not being there, but we didn’t talk, just sort of stood there watching the photos being taken, and she squeezed my hand. I think, in part, that I was hoping she would open up about what she was feeling, but that wasn’t really our kind of relationship to discuss that in that way, at least not then. Closer to her death, perhaps, as our relationship changed, but not then.
Finally, during the dance, we had a short dance to the wedding song for her and my dad. “My truly, truly fair”. I’m not much of a dancer, but I will remember that dance almost as much as the first dance with my wife.
What the hell am I even talking about?
I’m not sure I know. Some of it is regret, to the extent I can even ever feel it. Some of it is loss for my mom, with a sense of missed opportunity. But most of what triggered this is the reality that I was consciously aware of the issues with my mom long before the wedding, and I planned in a way that would minimize the pressure on her. I actively managed things for the year so that she wouldn’t feel stressed that she needed to do something. I wanted her to just enjoy it, not feel like she had to “deliver” on anything. But in doing so, we missed opportunities that looking back, maybe we wouldn’t have missed if we, well mainly I, didn’t try to make things easier for her throughout the lead-up. Maybe I was trying to protect her from me when I should have been letting her have more of a role so she wouldn’t have felt disengaged if she even did.
I just find it odd that in hindsight, certain choices we didn’t even consider at the time now seem clear from a weird memory twig, rather than when they were fresh, when we were consciously in the moment, and when it went according to our original but incomplete plan. Huh.