Zibby Mag

The Webby Award-winning literary lifestyle destination.

My Mother Had No Regrets, Even When I Thought She Should’ve

Monday, February 07, 2022

By Kim Fairley

I tried to convince my mother to hold off on open-heart surgery, but as always, once she made a decision, it seemed etched in stone. She told me she wanted to get the surgery over with so she could go on two cruises she had already paid for.

Her physician wasn’t in a big hurry, so I wondered why she was.

Two nights before her surgery, I wished Mom well. But then I added, “If for some reason it doesn’t go as planned, will you be okay with it?”

“What do you mean?” She seemed surprised by the question.

I told her that before Dad died, I had asked him about regrets. He had insisted he had none.

“I don’t have regrets either,” she said. “We may not have made a lot of money, but I had a very rich life.”

Mom’s words surprised me. I could think of dozens of regrets they both should have had. How could she not have any? When we were children, she didn’t have to work with my father. If having a career was that important, she could’ve chosen a job that allowed her to come home at night. Of course, she had regrets; she must’ve.

We were so young when they first started traveling together with their gift business. Leaving five little kids, twelve and under, alone for weeks without adult supervision — and for so many years? That alone must have filled her with tremendous guilt. Even now, years after her passing, I ask myself, Who does that?

A poor outcome in surgery had been my worst fear, and after three months in the ICU following her operation, Mom lay in a hospice bed, accepting that she was going to die due to a surgery gone terribly wrong. My sister Pam and I were sitting on either side of her. We reminded Mom that she should feel proud: I had become a writer; Jacquie, a teacher; Pam, a nurse manager; Rick, an independent business owner; and David, a department manager in a large pharmaceutical company.

Independence had been forced on us when we were growing up, but we had learned to think for ourselves, make hard decisions, and live with the consequences. We had the confidence to accomplish any of the goals we set for ourselves.

While we reminisced, Pam’s hand rested on Mom’s right forearm, and as she rubbed it, Mom started to cry. “I’ve been trying to die all day, Pam, and you won’t let me. You have to let me go.”

At her words I found myself squeezing into a fetal position in my chair. You left us all those years without any problem. Why all of a sudden do you need permission?

Maybe she regretted all those times she didn’t think about us, all those times she could have stayed and didn’t. But Mom had lived in the moment. This wasn’t regret — Mom had wanted to be sure we were okay.

She wasn’t much of a crier, but unexpectedly, tears rolled down her cheeks. By then, Pam and I also were crying. Mom was leaving us again, only this time she wasn’t coming back. I reached my hand over to stroke her left forearm.

“It’s okay, Mom,” Pam said.

Mom closed her eyes for a moment and then opened them. “Please tell the rest of the family that I love them very much.” Pam and I leaned in to embrace Mom, and our tears dropped into the hollowed space above her collarbone.

I sobbed on Mom’s shoulder, remembering how hard I’d fought her in the decision to have surgery. In the end, Mom had taken control of her future just as she had throughout her life. She had known the risk to her health with the procedure. Maybe she also knew the physical and emotional risks to the five of us kids when she traveled with my father. And maybe she decided to travel with him anyway.

The day she died, she seemed more peaceful. As she glanced across the bed, our eyes met, and I reached over to stroke her hair. “You okay, Mom?” I asked.

“Kiss me,” she said.

Mom had never said that before she had left on any of those trips. In fact, I couldn’t remember her ever having said it; Dad had been the affectionate one. I leaned down and kissed Mom on the lips, then looked at her, hoping for some sign that she was happy. “Kiss me again,” she said.

“Kiss you again?”

She nodded and closed her eyes. I leaned down and kissed her again. I loved her. And in that moment, that was all that mattered.


Kim Fairley is the author of Shooting Out the Lights: A Memoir and Boreal Ties: Photographs and Two Diaries of the 1901 Peary Relief Expedition. She has a BFA from the University of Southern California and an MFA from the University of Michigan. A memoirist, Kim writes about her age gap marriage and competitive swimming in the early years of Title IX. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You can learn more about Kim at www.kimfairley.com.