If you could turn back time and change one thing in your life, what would it be?
Golly. I’ve actually been mulling over how best to answer this all day. Not because I’ve been deliberating over which situation comes to mind, but because it is rather personal and I’m undecided as to how much is appropriate to share in a public forum like this. I’m not a massively private person, but by the same token I don’t want to set a precedent where everyone feels obliged to wear their heart on their sleeve like I tend to do.
Anyway, I’ve just arrived home from a UX Melbourne event, and I’ve had a few wines. So here goes.
I’m generally not one to live a life of regret. I’ve done stupid things. I once went swimming in the ocean shallows at sunset and scraped my face badly on the rocks just below the water. I’ve loved someone who was untrustworthy and had my heart broken as a result. I’ve gotten lost in the New Zealand jungle and nearly died (possibly an exaggeration, but hey, it’s my story). I don’t regret any of those things.
But there is one incident from a few years ago that I occasionally wish I could turn back. My mother was visiting from out of town, and I wanted to share with her one of the things I love most about Melbourne—the bike trails. Melbourne has dozens of wonderful cycling trails; the trail near where I live hugs Merri Creek for 10 kms or more, and you can lose yourself in the wide expanses of grass, the overhanging trees, small waterfalls, and rickety bridges. I love it because it’s so easy to forget you’re close to the heart of a city of 2.5 million people as you pedal past bushes and ducks and frogs and winding corners, with the sun on your face and the wind in your hair.
So I suggested we go for a bike ride.
I placed my youngest daughter on the back of my bike, in a child seat, and my 65-year-old mother jumped on my wife’s bicycle. We rode to the end of my street, and all was good. I could sense Mum was finding her way with how to handle the bike, but she seemed in control. At the end of the street we turned right, and there was a slight downward incline. I could see Mum picking up a bit of speed, and in hindsight it’s clear that she was out of her comfort zone. But at the time I thought nothing of it. Riding a bike is something that comes so naturally to me, so I didn’t consider the idea that anyone else would find it difficult. I can remember going for a bunch of family bike rides as a kid, and here I was, reliving that moment. It was great.
The nostalgia was short-lived. As Mum’s bike gathered speed, I called out to her to use her brakes, but for some reason she seemed reluctant to do so. I could see her gathering momentum, and as she approached the next turn it was clear she was losing control of the bike. She tried to take the next corner, but instead careened into the grass between the footpath and the road, flying over the handlebars. She landed [I]hard.[/I]
Poor Mum was lying on her side. Her glasses had come off—the frames were broken and there was mud on her face. “Oh, I don’t think that’s good” was how she described the situation. She didn’t feel like she could move, and her shoulder was “quite sore”.
We called an ambulance. By the time they arrived, Mum’s pain was severe, and it was clear she’d broken something. The ambos began giving her short-term pain relief, which took the edge off, but only lasted a few minutes. She had been moving at maybe 25-30 km/hr when she came off the bike, and her shoulder bore the full impact. It turns out she completely shattered the ball joint, and ended up having to have a titanium replacement. The operation was a few days later (we were deliberating with the doctors over it would be better for her to have it done in Melbourne or fly home to have the operation in her home city). She was in hospital for a couple of weeks all up.
Although I didn’t force Mum onto the bike, I still carry around a bit of guilt for how that day played out. If it had been a simple operation, it probably wouldn’t be that big a deal. But Mum’s one big passion in life was playing the cello. She played in various quartets and orchestras, several nights a week, and every weekend. It was both her creative and social outlet. As a result of her operation, some of the nerves in her arm were severed, and she is no longer able to play her beloved instrument. Rightly or wrongly, I carry the weight of that decision to suggest we go for a bike ride as the reason she will never play the cello again.
Mum’s pain has mostly gone away, but her mobility is limited, and she’s not the only one impacted—my dad is in a wheelchair, so Mum is his primary carer. She’s less able to perform that role than she used to—she can no longer lift her arm above shoulder height, so it’s basically impossible for her to take things up and down from shelves. She gets tired more than she used to, as it requires more effort to move her upper body. They get by, but Mum’s limited use of her arm complicates things.
And I live in a city 800 kms away, regularly feeling guilty about not being there for them.
I don’t mean to bring everyone down, or evoke sympathy or anything. Plenty of people have it far worse, and I have my own health (touch wood). Mum and Dad are doing fine, relatively. They’re getting old, and no doubt will encounter other health issues as they age. Mum has adapted—she and Dad joke that “he’s the arms, and she’s the legs of the outfit”. But I’m sure there have been moments that she relives the incident and regrets that it happened. She’s incredibly resilient and pragmatic and optimistic, and is finding other ways to seek creative fulfilment outside of creating music, like basket weaving and origami.
But yes, if there is one thing I could change, that would be it. I would not have suggested we go for a bike ride. I wish I’d suggested a leisurely stroll along the creek instead.
I still, when I ride past that corner where the accident happened, see Mum coming off and landing awkwardly on the grass. I can’t help but rewind to the conversation we had moments before her accident, further up the hill, when I saw her hesitate to put the brakes on. I wish I could scream at her “Jam the brakes on, now!” to avoid her losing control and crashing. I wish I’d picked up on her nervous body language when she first got on the bike. It was only in the hospital bed, waiting to go into theatre, that she told me she hadn’t ridden a bike for 30 years, and that back then they had foot brakes. It was only then that she revealed she’d tried the hand brakes and they’d squeaked, so she’d been worried that she was doing something wrong, which is why she didn’t use them.
Of course, I know that this wasn’t really my fault—Mum has, on multiple occasions, stressed to me that I was not to feel guilty. Sh*t happens, we grow old and our bodies fail us.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t relive it in detail, or that I wish it hadn’t transpired.
Look after your body. Enjoy it. Treasure it. You’ll miss it when it fails you. And it will fail all of us, one day.