My sophomore year of high school I helped my high school senate raise funds for a battered women’s shelter. This was our winter service activity, and we worked on it for six or seven weeks.
It was the first time in my life I’d ever heard the phrase “battered women.”
When the fundraiser was complete, I offered to go to the shelter as a representative of the school. I naively, obliviously put on my preppy new forest green wool coat, the one with a giant shawl collar and big brass rivets for buttons. If there was ever a coat that screamed “Boujee early ‘90’s Laura Ashley-Ralph Lauren hybrid fashion!!!” this was it. I’d wanted it for a long time, and my mom had recently relented and bought it.
A small group of us drove to the shelter in the waning light of the winter afternoon to deliver gifts and a check, while our supervising teacher pointed out to us that there was no sign on the small brick bungalow tucked into an older neighborhood not far from downtown. The shelter didn’t have a sign, he said, because the women and children staying there were at risk for retribution from their husbands or partners. It was a small, inviting, safe place, which protected its inhabitants through anonymity.
Women escaping abuse. Having to run from and hide away to protect oneself from a significant other. All of this was so foreign to me.
Inside, we met the director, and she introduced us to a couple of women who were currently living in the home. One of them was smiling. One held a baby and looked sad. A little boy stood nearby in the small living room.
I didn’t know what to say.
The director and the smiling woman profusely thanked us. After a few minutes of conversation, as we turned to leave, the smiling woman leaned over and said to me, “I have to tell you, that is such a beautiful coat. You look like a movie star!”
For a just a second, an idea sparked. I should give her the coat.
She could use it more than me.
She loves it.
She has left her home with nothing in order to save her life.
I can wear one of my other coats.
My mom might be mad at me if I give it away.
I’m fifteen and this is a grown woman.
I don’t have the words to know how to do it.
I might get in trouble.
Reader, I suppressed the spark.
I didn’t give her the coat.
We left, and drove back to our high-rent east-side enclave. I felt hot with shame in my green wool coat.
Twenty years later, I attended a writing workshop in a quiet canyon where the presenter asked us to respond to this question: What do you regret?
I sat in silence, with only the scratching of pencils around me as we all thought and wrote.
I regretted ever feeling anger at people who didn’t understand my family’s struggle with disabilities.
I regretted the mean thing I said to a boy in the middle school library as an 8th grader.
I regretted all the kind things I didn’t say, that I could have, should have said over the course of my life.
I regretted yelling at my little boys in frustration and fear that I didn’t know how to raise them.
I kept writing.
Beneath my ribs and in my temples, I felt a sharp, acute pain.
I envisioned the unmarked shelter.
In my mind, I pictured that smiling, displaced, and traumatized woman.
My head and my heart were literally hurting.
I pictured the preppy green coat.
And in my mind, in the place where regret lives, I took it off and put it on her.