They don’t all have them. Not all our regrets are so strong they will follow us to the grave. Some float up, voiceless, with the last of our breath. Most, too insignificant to clutter our deaths, burn away like morning mist. Some, though, are as much a part of us as bone and sinew and marrow. They are among our remains. They are buried with us. If you die with one of those—a regret like a tumor deep in your gut—your grave will forever be filled with the sounds of your lamenting.
I was eight the first time. At my grandfather’s burial. We sat back from the grave in metal folding chairs as cold as the November morning. The minister was speaking. I could hear…someone else. A voice. Quiet. Whispering nearby. I thought it was someone praying, but after the coffin was lowered into the ground and ceremonial handfuls of earth fell softly on the lid and people got up to leave and go back to our house, I could still hear it. A litany. Alan. My brother, my friend, my first love, I let you die a stranger to me. Alan. I will never see you. Never hear your voice. Alan, my brother. You died a stranger to me. “Who is that?” I asked my father, whose father had just been lowered into the earth.
“Who is what?” he answered. “Who is that talking?” He looked at me and I could see he did not understand. “Someone is talking about his brother. Alan.” My grandfather lived in Ohio. After we made the long drive back to Baltimore, I never visited his grave again. Never again heard the voice of Alan’s brother blowing like leaves and decay among the gravestones.
In high school, my English class took a trip to Westminster Cemetery to visit Poe’s grave. The tour quickly became tiresome and the class began to disperse throughout the stones in groups and pairs, reveling in not being in school. I went off with Ellen, whom I thought I would love forever, but did not. I was hoping to kiss her, but I knew that a girl would probably not kiss a boy in a cemetery. We walked, holding hands. I had not thought about the voice at my grandfather’s funeral in years, but suddenly I was eight years old again feeling the November chill. I knew the voice I was hearing was not one of my classmates’ or Mr. Coleman’s or the tour guide’s, but I looked around anyway. Not to see who was talking—I knew that the voice was coming from under the ground—I was looking to see if anyone else could hear it. Beloved mother Russia, I should be at rest deep in your soil, your loving bosom. This is not my soil. I lived here for thirty years, but this is not my home. Russia, this is not my home. Not my home. Maybe someone else could hear it. Maybe everyone. Surely I couldn’t be the only one—but I knew I was alone. I said nothing about the voice.
My mother left us. My father, really—I was in college, but it still felt like she left us both. There was another man. She had been in love with him for years and we didn’t know. My father didn’t know. He began to drink more. Too much. His wife and another man. Right under his nose and he didn’t know. Didn’t know. His wife and another man. When I came home from college for summers and holidays, I tried to be a friend to him, since I was becoming not a son. I tried to get him to do something other than drink. Let’s invite some neighbors for Thanksgiving. The Carlsons. We should go skiing over Christmas. Vermont. That can be our present to each other. No one came. We didn’t go. I grew to dread visiting him—it was depressing, but I knew this regret was growing its roots deep.
I have never been back to my father’s grave, even though it is in the town where I live. I tried to be a good son. I tried to help him find something to fill himself with other than bile. I can not visit his grave. Hearing his voice—My wife. My wife and another man. And I didn’t even know—it would kill me. I failed him. My father. That thought—that failure—grows in me like a cancer—drawing strength from me. Weakening me. My voice will carry it over the grass of the cemetery in which I am buried. But you will not hear.