Not long ago, I wrote about a law in China, home of the one-child limit, requiring the kids to attend to the financial and emotional needs of their parents.
The law was put in place in part to restore China's traditional veneration of ancestors — replaced under Mao with devotion to the state — and because China has little social safety net for its enormous aging population.
I took the opportunity to whine that my children, if we lived in China, would be in jail or a re-education camp by now because they don't pay as much attention to me as I want.
I was being flip (although my children actually do not pay as much attention to me as I want). But the column triggered emails and voice messages filled with pain and tears.
Almost all were from mothers who are deeply wounded to be left out of their children's and grandchildren's lives after years of their own love and attention.
"We keep asking the question, Why?" wrote a woman who identified herself "Too ashamed and heartbroken to sign my name."
"It's not that we're 'needy' or that we don't recognize how busy they are or that we don't want them to be independent, but we would like to maintain a healthy connection with them and our grandchildren," she wrote.
I was scolding my younger self in that column. The 20-something self who ignored her parents for weeks and months at a time. There was a rift over my decision to move in with a boyfriend after college, but that was just the excuse I used to not bother with them. I was busy with a career.
It was about a decade later when my father was hit with esophageal cancer. Soon after his death, my mother was besieged by heart and lung problems that would take their own sweet time killing her.
Though I had two kids by then, I made it home to Pittsburgh every other weekend to help care for them, putting that career I cherished into suspended animation.
And I managed to have fun with my dying parents. There was nothing my skinny little mother loved more than a Manhattan and a cheese steak and fries for lunch at her favorite Italian restaurant and a nap after. And I regaled my father with stories from the press box — I was a sportswriter then — and he couldn't have been more proud.
But there had never been any family vacations with these grandparents, no Sunday dinners. I didn't enjoy my parents until they were already on their way out of this world. My children barely knew them at all.
I think about those wasted years, those years of neglect, with tremendous remorse. If I could say anything to the children of the mothers who wrote to me, it would be: Don't make the mistake I made. You will live the rest of your life regretting your careless disregard for the only people who will ever find loving you effortless and who will adore your children without reserve.
My mother was annoying. And my father was full of bluster. But all these years later, my sisters and I laugh at the memories of her pestering — and at signs of those qualities in us. And I think of how my father and I would have argued about the things I have written in these pages, but about how proud he would have been.
Families are complicated. I know that. But when all those families ask is some of your time — a regular phone call or lunch out — it is little enough. My friend Linda has Wednesday night dinners with her two kids and their significant others. My friend Betsy has Sunday dinner with her boys. I envy them both these semi-sacred rituals with their children.
The older generation spends most of its breath telling the younger generation not to make the mistakes it did. Learn from us, we say. Save yourself time and pain. It is in the nature of things that they don't listen.
But hear me on this point. Your parents only die once; don't screw it up. Because you won't get a chance to retrieve all the years you were busy doing something else.
And you will, like me, regret it for the rest of your life.
Susan Reimer's columns appear Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.