I’m sure I’ve written about it before, haven’t I? That I am the sixth of six children? That I was an unplanned intrusion into a family that was more than complete at five? That I was a mistake, probably discovered too late to be corrected? My parents never (that I recall) told me I was an uncorrected mistake, but I was not oblivious to the obvious financial strain that a sixth child had on the family. Not that I did anything to ameliorate the situation. I took far more than I ever gave, but that’s what children do, isn’t it? Yet the natural order usually gives them the opportunity to repay, in one form or another, the value of the investment over the course of the parents’ lives. Adult children can count on being given the opportunity to demonstrate to their parents that, regardless of the sacrifices their parents made, those sacrifices were worthwhile. But that’s not always the case. Parents die too early or children mature far too late or, as in my case, both. That’s the problem with unplanned children and parents who started late. My mother was thirty-one when her first child was born; my father was thirty-six. They didn’t stop having children until fourteen years later, when I showed up. And then, thirty-two years after that, they were both gone.
My folks taught me to be responsible with money. My mother, in particular, taught me that I should expect to earn interest on my money. In her later years, when she occasionally needed to borrow money from me for reasons I don’t recall, she expected to repay me with interest. And I didn’t object. I let her repay me with interest. If I had been the kind of son I wish I had been, I would have told her I would not let her repay the money, much less with interest. But I hadn’t matured enough to realize I should have made the money a gift to her or, in reality, a repayment of the investment she had made in me for almost thirty years. I can’t undo the fact that I actually kept a ledger of how much she owed me. It’s what she taught me to do, but I should have known better. I have no idea what she needed the money for, but I know with some certainty that it wasn’t for luxury items. It probably was to pay the mortgage or buy groceries or put gas in the car. With the exception of the mortgage, things she had paid for me over the years. And, in fact, my folks paid my rent during the lean years. Yet I didn’t reciprocate the way I should have done.
I doubt I’ll ever get over the guilt and regret I still feel for treating my parents’ need for money as just another financial transaction. I was unplanned, a mistake. And that mistake cost my folks the modicum of financial comfort they might otherwise have enjoyed in their retirement. I try to take some comfort in the fact that both my parents got some joy out of having the unplanned sixth child. They didn’t, as far as I know, ever openly express regret that I came along. But I can’t help but think that they would have led lives less burdened by financial concerns if they had just stopped at five. What’s done is done, of course. My regret and guilt won’t change a damn thing. Knowing that to be the case, I wish I could erase that regret and guilt. It’s not something I think about all the time, but when I do it consumes me. It will pass; it always does. I wonder whether it will ever disappear or, at least, recede into memory so deep that it doesn’t so openly intrude on my life.