Regrets

When people tell me that they have “No regrets,” I never believe them.  Not because I think they are lying, but because I don’t think they’ve ever seriously considered the question.  No regrets?  Not a single decision that you would change?

I used to think that I didn’t have any regrets in my life before I went to college.  My theory was that getting a full ride to Stanford changed my life’s trajectory so much that it would be foolish to alter any event before that point in time.  

I know how lucky I am to have gotten accepted in the first place, so changing something from high school didn’t really seem like a valid option.  But, I was falling prey to the same kind of thinking that I have just accused others of making.  I had never really thought about the question.  When I did, I realized that I do have one regret from high school.  Just one.

Her name was Priscilla.  It was late in my freshman year when she joined my earth science class in the seat right next to mine.  She was the new girl in school, but she wasn’t the quiet type.  Right away I could tell she was different.  She had some deep wisdom about her despite only being 22 days older than me.  She was an “old soul” as they say.  

We hit it off instantly and pretty soon Priscilla and I were talking every day.  She liked my jokes, but I loved hers.  Yes, Priscilla was pretty, but she was the first girl I enjoyed purely for her personality.   

I eventually found out that Priscilla lived down the street from me.  Though she technically wasn’t the girl next door (it was a 90 second walk door-to-door), this was as close as I was gonna get. 

Over the course of our spring we started spending more and more time together.  I went to her house a few times a week to teach her guitar and spent lots of time with her mother and her brothers.  They were always cooking delicious Puerto Rican food and they were always so nice to me.  It was amazing.

Over a matter of a few months, Priscilla and I grew incredibly close and I learned about her traumatic childhood.  She had moved around a lot and her father wasn’t in her life anymore.  In fact, her father had molested her when she was very young.  It’s so disturbing to think about a man doing that to a little girl, let alone his own daughter.    

But because of Priscilla’s positivity and incredible sense of humor, you would never know any of these terrible things happened to her.  But that’s just how she was.  She hid it.  

My favorite word in English is idioglossia.  It means a secret language spoken between a few people.  It is also a hidden thing.   

Well, Priscilla and I developed our own little idioglossia while in our earth science class.  The thing about our earth science teacher was that if she caught you passing notes, you would either have to read your note aloud to the entire class or you would have to go to after-school detention.  It was your choice. 

Being the nerd I was, I couldn’t risk detention, so I had to develop a way for us to communicate where being caught didn’t have consequences.  On one particular day we were learning about the periodic table when it hit me—we can use the periodic table to communicate!  Let me explain. 

If you look at the periodic table below you will see that every numbered element has a letter (or set of two letters) associated with it:

   

And I realized that every letter in the alphabet (besides Q) is on the table.  This means that we could use numbers to represent letters. 

For example, if we wanted to write “Nick” we would say “28, 6, 19”.  In this case, 28 = “Ni”, 6 = “C”, and 19 = “K”.  We didn’t need to know that K meant potassium, just that the 19th element was represented by the letter K. 

And if we wanted to only use one letter in an element, we would cross one of the digits out within a number.  So the word “zoo” would be “30, 8, 8,” where the “0” in “30” is crossed out.  While “30” = “Zn”, “30” is just “Z” since we erase the second letter of the two letter abbreviation.  And since 8 =  “O”, then “30, 8, 8″ becomes “zoo.”

We used commas to separate letters in words and spaces to separate words in sentences.  From this simple number to letter conversion system, the periodic table became our personal Rosetta stone.  Priscilla and I were off to the races.  Before we knew it, we were translating notes without even looking at the table. 

For example, we both knew that “53” was “I”, that “13” was “A”, and so forth.  We would read the notes quickly, but took much longer to write them.  And the anti-detection system worked perfectly.

One day, as we were doing our normal passing of the day’s note, our teacher caught us and called me to the front of the class.  She said, “You know the drill.  Detention or would you like to share what you had to say to Priscilla?”

The class did the all familiar “ooooooooooh,” eager to hear the juicy details.  I smiled then started to read, “53 19, 7, 6, 74…”

Before I could finish reading the note, our teacher snatched it out of my hand as the class looked on in confusion.  I guess I was Nicky Numbers even back then. 

I tell this story because on the last day of freshman year I got a note from Priscilla where she insinuated that she wanted something more than friendship.  

I know what you are thinking about how I should have responded:

“39, 63, 16!”

“Yes!”

It’s so obvious, right?

But of course, I didn’t say yes.

I had just gotten out of a 1+ year relationship with my first girlfriend ever and had been desperately trying to get her back over the prior few months.  Though I was starting to fall for Priscilla, I was still so hung up on my ex that I told Priscilla that we should just stay friends.  That is my only regret from high school.

My ex never took me back and Priscilla and I grew apart over the summer.  The next two years (sophomore + junior) we didn’t have classes together so we rarely saw each other.  Senior year we reconnected a little bit, but Priscilla had just started dating one of my close friends named Martin.  They were so happy when they were together.  I will admit that I was envious of what Martin had with Priscilla because I saw her smile at him like she used to smile at me. 

Anyways, senior year ended and I tried to rekindle what I had with Priscilla once again, but it wasn’t the same.  I went to college and she moved to Las Vegas.  We fell out of contact and the next thing I knew she had a baby girl.  

Unfortunately, one month before I graduated from college, Priscilla passed away.  She was only 22 years old and her daughter now had to grow up without her mother.  It was the worst tragedy of anyone I knew personally.  I still don’t know what actually happened though.  Was it drugs?  Was it an accident?  Was it something else?  I can speculate all I want, but that won’t bring her back.  

If you had asked me in recent years what I regret from my life, I could rattle off a list.  I wish I had started working out earlier.  I wish I had started my blog sooner.  I wish I had bought Apple stock.  The list goes on. 

But all of these regrets are focused on one thing—me.  They are focused on me being healthier, wealthier, and wiser.  They are selfish regrets.  Regrets that would make my life better than it is today.  

But those regrets pale in comparison to my falling out with Priscilla.  Not because it would have made me better off in the long-run had I said yes, but because there is a chance it might have saved her.  There is a chance the world might be a slightly, ever so slightly, different place today had I said yes.

I don’t feel guilt over this decision, but, if I had the chance to go back and change it, would I?  Would I trade away everything that I have now for that chance?  Would I give up this lucky, blessed life of mine to possibly save hers?

It reminds me of the choice one man made when he saw someone about to jump off of a bridge in a suicide attempt.  The man ran over and held onto the jumper until emergency services arrived.  When the man was interviewed after the event and asked why he held on though he could have fallen to his death as well, he said, “If I had let go, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”

I feel the same way here.  How could I enjoy another breath of this life knowing that I willingly let hers slip away?  Knowing that I could’ve tipped the scales away from her untimely demise?

Of course, I will never be given any such proposal.  I will never have to make any such choice.  

But, there are many other choices I will have to make.  Choices that will affect the lives of my friends, my family, my colleagues, and many others.  So will you. 

And some of those choices won’t turn out the way you want them to.  Some of them will turn into regrets.  And that’s okay.  Because regrets are not something to be looked down upon.  Regrets are something to be cherished.  Regrets mean that you learned something.  Regrets mean that you won’t make the same mistake again.

Of course, you may never get the chance to right your wrongs, but you can always help someone else to right theirs.  Become a mentor.  Write publicly.  Share your story.  Then maybe, just maybe, your regret won’t be a regret after all.

The last time I saw Priscilla was at my high school graduation.  Though I can’t remember what we said to each other on that day, I will always remember her:

  

Thank you for reading!

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This is post 193. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering: https://github.com/nmaggiulli/of-dollars-and-data


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