No excuses, no regrets

by Doug Ferguson
June 1996

It was August 1994, and the earth was passing through a meteor shower that littered the sky with streaks of white, yellow and blue. I was in the perfect place to observe the phenomenon -- lying face-up on the rocks of an old jetty that thrust outward into the cool waters of Cape Cod.

Because I was surrounded by water -- the Cape on one side and the Atlantic on the other -- it was easy for me to imagine that I was on a small boat in some distant ocean, far away from the lights that dotted the rolling dunes. As the tide began to roll in, slipping between the shell-encrusted rocks beneath me, phosphorescent algae adorned the water with flecks of gold.

Provincetown, Massachusetts is on the very tip of Cape Cod, pointing like an accusing finger out into the rolling swells of the Atlantic. I had spent my summer in that small resort town, working for a two-partner law firm during the day and tending bar at night, but my time there was drawing to a close. I thought of the tumultuous events that had occurred that summer as I listened to the quiet lapping of the waves.

My last two months in "P-town" had been spent in denial. When business was slow at the bar, and when I thought no one was looking, I would down a couple of Jaeger shots just to keep from thinking about the news I recently had received. But as the sky began to turn from black to gray on that cool August morning, I couldn't chase away the regrets that were keeping me from sleep. I had been lying there awake all night.

"I could have prevented this," I thought to myself. "What would have happened if I had never left Chapel Hill? Would I have met him? Would I have gotten HIV?" I kicked angrily at an aluminum can and watched it disappear beneath a wave. "I should have been more careful."

"Could have . . . would have ... should have." There would be no escaping my conscience this morning. "Could've . . . would've . . . should've." Like a freight train slowly gathering speed, the phrases repeated themselves again and again in my troubled mind.

Whenever I had regrets like the ones I had on this particular morning, the excuses inevitably would follow. "I just didn't know," I would convince myself. "It's not my fault."

Every excuse I crafted would give rise to another. And that to another . . . until no shred of individual responsibility remained. I blamed God. I blamed gays. I blamed everyone but myself.

And so it went -- regrets followed by excuses, excuses by regrets -- and, before I knew it, an entire evening had slipped through my fingers with nothing to show for it . . . except a litany of unanswered questions and unresolved issues. Why did I even waste my time?

Someone asked me recently about the title of my column: "No excuses, no regrets." And although I had chosen the title without much thought, I was able to answer her question without hesitation.

"It's not the way things are," I told her. "It's the way things ought to be."

Like most folks I know, I can think of quite a few things in my life that I would do over again if given the chance. Words that I never should have spoken. Friends I should have called more often.

But the more I ponder all of the mistakes I've made in my life -- and believe me, I've made a lot -- I've begun to realize just how important those mistakes have been in defining who I am. After all, I can't imagine a Doug Ferguson who never acted on impulse, or a Doug Ferguson who refused to go out on a limb. Even my HIV status -- through forcing me to take a long, hard look at myself -- has made me a better person, although I have yet to put that particular regret to bed.

The less I regret, the less I blame. Why assign blame for the events that have made me who I am? Why blame someone for the accidents of life? To do so would be like blaming someone for my birth, for the sunrise, for the fact that "life's not fair." Sounds a little futile, doesn't it?

But as I lay there on that August morning one year ago, the cold rocks digging into my back, I felt perfectly entitled to my regrets -- and my excuses were all I had to keep them at bay. When I finally stood to walk the short distance home, my joints groaning in complaint, the "could'ves, would'ves and should'ves" continued to echo in my mind.

It would be some time before I could begin to get past my self-pity, before I realized that all the "could'ves, would'ves and should'ves" in the world wouldn't cure my HIV. As for that day in August one year ago, however, having "no excuses" and "no regrets" was the furthest thing from my mind.

Doug Ferguson is a third-year student in the School of Law at the University of North Carolina and a member of the Human Rights Campaign Fund Board of Governors. His columns initially appeared weekly in the Daily Tar Heel, and are appearing in Oasis in their original, chronological order.
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