Left to Wonder

“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” – Sydney Smith

When I was a teenager, one of my good friends was “Gary.” Gary was one of those kids who were targets of the taunters and teasers. Even nice guys threw barbs at him, but he took it in a good-natured way.

I probably teased Gary myself on occasion… I honestly can’t remember… but I went out of my way to be kind to him most of the time. I liked Gary, because he was a genuinely nice person.

What caused Gary to be teased so much was the way he spoke (a little odd) and ran (very odd). Seems strange now, but no one – including me – ever stopped to think about what might be wrong with someone who had what we would now clearly consider to be a disability. If someone walked, talked, or acted differently than everyone else, he was simply thought of as a “donkey,” “do-do,” “dork,” “weirdo,” etc. Compassion and understanding were scarce commodities in those days.

Things like “learning disorders” and conditions such as autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, or dyslexia were never discussed. Nor did teachers or school staff members even dream of giving kids with such problems special accommodations. It was a pretty cold world for those youngsters. You either cut it or you didn’t.

By the standards of yesteryear, Gary’s dad was perceived to be rich by everyone who lived in our little version of Peyton Place. By today’s standards, of course, he really wasn’t. But I loved going over to Gary’s house, because he had everything – including a great recreation room in the basement with a jukebox, ping pong table, pinball machine, and more.

What was really interesting about Gary was that even though the bullies in our class tried to make him out to be a dummy, he was actually very smart. I remember playing a game with him one afternoon with two dictionaries. One of us would throw out a word, then we would race to see who could find it in the dictionary first.

As best as I can recall, Gary found every word faster than I did. It just about drove me nuts. It was the first time I consciously thought about how smart he was.

I also recall dragging Gary into touch-football games in the street with two of my neighbors who were roughly our age. He could catch the ball pretty well, but he ran stiff-legged like a duck. One of my neighbors (“Larry”), who was in the grade below us, would mock him unmercifully for this. Interesting, now that I think about it, given the fact that Larry was one of the dumbest kids in his class, having flunked at least one full year that I know of.

As is so often the case, we all went our separate ways after high school. After a number of years had passed, I heard from “Ben,” my best friend in high school, that Gary had moved to Washington, D.C. Every time I came to Washington, I thought about trying to get in touch with him, but it never happened. Too busy with business matters.

Years later, when I moved to the D.C. area, I finally tracked down Gary’s telephone number. I thought it would be a kick to get together with my old high school pal and see how his life had turned out. I’d heard that he was an attorney, but I didn’t know if he had ever gotten married or had children. Plus, as an adult in a much more open, knowledgeable, and medically aware world, I was curious as to what Gary’s condition was and how successful he had been in rising above it.

Gary kept creeping up on my to-do list, until he eventually made it to the top 10. I felt sure I would be able to get in touch with him and manage to have a little reunion within the next few weeks. I was very much looking forward to it.

But before I made the effort to actually do it, I took a short trip back to Peyton Place to visit my elderly mother in her nursing home. Ben picked me up at the airport and, as soon as I got in the car, said to me, “Before I even pull away from the curb, I want to tell you something. Gary died a few days ago – on the operating table while having open-heart surgery.” I was stunned.

I’m angry with myself that I never made it a point to see Gary. I’ll never know the answers to all the questions I had about him and his life. I especially wanted to talk to him about his condition, as I have two children with disabilities. But I was too late.

Which leaves me thinking about all those things on my to-do list that were always ahead of getting in touch with Gary. In retrospect, I ask myself, “Was each and every one of them more important than seeing him?” I guess I’ll just have to keep wondering … and wonder what our reunion might have been like.

Who’s on your to-do list, and how many tasks are ahead of that person? You might want to start wondering about your priorities. Wondering about them today – not tomorrow – might just lead to action instead of regrets. When you wait until tomorrow to wonder, action is sometimes not an option.

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