Back in fifth-grade, Billy Honecker proudly told the whole class that he had no regrets. Of course, he was young, but all of us felt a little guilty about something. Abbie felt sorry about hitting her sister during an argument. Jimmy apologized for lying to his mother about doing some chore when he hadn't. Wendy wished she'd invited a classmate to her birthday party.
"What a bunch of sorry saps," Billy exclaimed as we sat about our rural school playground, growing a little gray in mood as if we were in a confession booth. "Your little sister probably deserved to be hit," Billy said. "And you didn't get caught telling a little fib, right? And who cares that four-eyed Charlie feels sorry for himself because he didn't get invited?"
He marched off, stood atop a knoll and gazed into the distance, as if to get a better view of the horizon. He reminded me of a bronze statue, that hero standing perfect and cold above everyone else.
As we grow taller and older, I suspect our sense of regret often expands. It covers not jut the bad stuff we know our parents wouldn't be proud of but those poor decisions we made, the ones that left us in a lesser state. I don't mean choices that kept us from landing a better job or ruined a date but those that seemingly protected us but only hurt the ones who love us.
Mom and dad can reprimand us for sibling fights and not doing chores without personally feeling hurt. But leaving out Charlie, just because he's the butt of jokes, would make most parents anxious about the job they'd done.
Jimmy gazed with awe at Billy's apparent strength of will, then watched him descend the knoll and head toward whatever vision he saw in the cornfield. Petals from the schoolyard's magnolia tree fluttered about him in the wind like snow.
I didn't believe Billy, though at the time I couldn't put why into words. Now I know: How could anyone never have regrets, unless he lacked a conscience?
(originally published Sunday, May 15, 2005)