"I should have taken the dog for a walk." Those were my mother's words to me a week after my father's death in February 1979, when he was 57.
She'd awakened one morning and found my father, blue and gurgling, in the bed beside her. She called my sister, who lived nearby, and said, "Something is wrong with Daddy. Come right now." My 24-year-old sister arrived in her pajamas, ran down the hall to the bedroom, took one look at our father and called 9-1-1. The paramedics arrived and took him to the hospital, where he died nine weeks later.
"I should have taken the dog for a walk." I can still remember how I caught my breath. How selfish of her, I thought. I'd had a strained relationship with my mother for years, and this was one of those times I felt the strain again.
"I should have taken the dog for a walk." That phrase has remained with me for 35 years. Even after my mother died in 2008, I remembered.
Then, just this week, I had a conversation with my sister about the day she called 9-1-1 for my father. She said she and my mother didn't follow the ambulance to the hospital. An hour later a doctor called to talk to her about putting my father on a ventilator. His lungs had filled with fluid, but a ventilator could be used as a temporary aid. He recommended it be done. My mother argued with the doctor. "He was my buddy. I promised him I wouldn't let anyone perform heroic measures on him." The doctor was persuasive, though, and my mother gave her consent.
As it turned out, the ventilator remained in use for nine weeks. Attempts were made to wean my father from the machine, but his lifelong smoking habit had resulted in emphysema, and his lungs had given out. Late one evening he asked that the ventilator be turned off, and his request was honored. He died six hours later.
Until this week I hadn't known about the phone conversation between the doctor and my mother. I hadn't known -- or hadn't remembered -- about the promise my parents had made to each other not to allow heroic measures. I see now that "I should have taken the dog for a walk" was a statement made out of heartbreak and regret rather than out of selfishness.
I made assumptions about another person, and I didn't know the whole story. And I missed an opportunity, in my mother's later years, to talk to her about promises and regrets. It might have been good for us both.
I'm trying harder not to make assumptions.