One of the great regrets of my father’s life was losing a woman by the name of Jackie when he lived in Pensacola, Fla., but I didn’t know that when we first visited her home when I was 11 years old.
He told us we were going to visit an old friend from his younger days, but he wasn’t specific. Jackie was expecting us and seemed happy to see us. I remember her as attractive, charming and gracious. But even though I was only 11, I could tell that there was an electricity between them that meant they had been more than just friends — and still felt something deeply for one another.
Her husband wasn’t home. We visited Jackie several times during the year we lived in Pensacola, but we never met her husband. I discovered that my father also visited her from time to time at her job, sometimes taking her to lunch. But it took me several years to piece together what had gone on between them about 18 years before.
At her house that first time, my sisters and I were soon sent outside to play in the back yard. They obviously wanted to talk — and they didn’t want us around. That pattern continued each time we visited.
My father and Jackie had dated a few years after he graduated from high school. His parents had moved to Pensacola for a few years, so when he took a break from college, he moved there to be with them.
He and Jackie met and started dating. She was several years younger than he was, but they quickly fell in love and the relationship turned serious. There was talk of marriage, but my father wouldn’t commit.
Their relationship was on and off, largely because my father kept returning to Birmingham and was unwilling to commit to Jackie. At one point, he was in Birmingham for awhile and she kept begging him to come back.
He told me years later than he liked her wanting him and begging her to come back to her. He said it let him feel as though he couldn’t lose her — that she was going to wait for him. He said he was arrogant about her and felt that he was the one completely in control.
There was some formal event which Jackie needed to attend and she begged my father for weeks to come take her to it. He kept refusing. But at the last moment, he drove to Pensacola on the day of the event. He showed up at her house — planning to surprise her by agreeing to go with her.
But it turned out that Jackie had accepted an offer from another man to take her to the event that night. My father showed up at her house only to find her getting ready for a first date with another man.
Jackie was overjoyed to see my father. She told him she had a date with someone else, but she said she would break the date in order to go with my father instead. He was hurt that she had planned to go with another man — and he didn’t want to let her know how much it hurt him — so he just casually told her to go with the other man. He said it was no big deal. And he went back to Birmingham.
That was Jackie’s first date with a man who was eager to commit to her. She married him instead of my father. I’ll never know for sure exactly how my father felt at that point, but he arranged to join the Army right after that. Then he went back to college, where he met my mother.
When I was old enough to understand this story and he shared enough of it for me to know what had happened — at least from his point of view — he told me repeatedly how bitterly he regretted that he allowed his pride to tell Jackie to go on that date with the other man.
He told me that he had loved Jackie and had never really gotten over her. He said he was grateful that he had married my mother — because it meant he got his three children — but that Jackie had been the love of his life. He said that he believed if he had let Jackie cancel that date with her future husband, he would have married her instead.
I didn’t know it when I was 11, but our visits to her house — and his other meetings with her — were all about whether she was going to leave her husband and finally marry him.
I’ll never know exactly what was said between them. I’ll never know what the factors the decision were. I just know that we moved away from Pensacola and Jackie stayed there. She decided she couldn’t leave her husband at the time.
Less than 10 years later, she came looking for him. We lived in Jasper, Ala., by then. She told him — according to the story he told me — that she was finally ready to leave her husband. It had always been a pleasant-enough marriage, but one lacking any deep love. But she finally felt emotionally ready to leave.
Unfortunately for both of them, my father had married a second wife by that time. It wasn’t a happy marriage — and it ended in divorce — but the timing was wrong for my father and Jackie.
They had a few other meetings later in life, but they were both far past the point of making this sort of change by then. My father claimed that the love was still there between them. As far as I can tell, she and her husband are both still alive. I wonder whether she has any idea that my father is dead.
My father once told me that the biggest regret of his life was not asking Jackie to cancel that date with the man who became her husband. He knew in that moment of decision that he had been making a mistake with her. He suddenly realized that his indecision and inaction had been a mistake. But he thought he could still fix things later.
His ego didn’t want to admit to her that he had made such a big mistake with her. He didn’t want to let her know how much it hurt him that she could consider going out with someone else.
The lesson I learned from this is that there are key decisions we make in our emotional lives. It probably applies to other important decisions, too, but I’ve always applied it to love. When we realize we’ve made a mistake — with love or relationships — the time to fix things is as soon as we know we’ve made the mistake.
My experience is that every moment you wait to fix a mistake, the more likely it is that you’re going to be stuck with the mistake for the rest of your life. There quickly comes a point at which it’s too late to change the mistake, even though it could have been easily fixed if you had done so when you first realized the error.
I’ll never forget sitting in Jackie’s home when I was 11 and thinking how natural they seemed together. Even though we were quickly sent outside, I can still feel that electricity — something I now see as love — between two people who had never stopped loving each another.
I’ve made mistakes related to love and you probably have, too. With most of my relationships, it simply doesn’t matter to me that I never spoke to the person again. There was no lasting connection. But there have been a couple of times when I regretted not having done or said certain things when I had a chance.
Even though I heard the story and even though I intellectually understood the lesson, I still put myself into positions of making mistakes and then not fixing them while I still could.
The knowledge of what might have been if we had had the courage and wisdom to do the right thing at the right time is often the worst punishment that life can inflict on unhappy human beings.