ELDER MUSIC: A Barrel of Bachs
Crabby Old Lady and Loud Movies

Once Again for the Last Time?

One of the most common laments of the oldest old is for the things left undone. A large number say they wish they had traveled more. Others are sorry they didn't take more chances or that they didn't study harder in school or stayed with the wrong spouse instead of moving on.

The regrets of people who are near the end of life are remarkably similar. We know this because there is no lack of academics and other researchers who regularly poll elders with the question, “What do you most regret about your life?” or something close to that.

When I read these surveys, I feel terrible for people who are summing up their lives in such a gloomy way and for awhile, I worried that when I sense my life is coming to a close someday, I will be thinking like that.

Then I realized it is, of course, the gloomy question that takes them to that dark place and probably not their normal demeanor.

When my mother was dying and we talked, one day, about life and death, she said to me, “Don't feel bad, Ronni. I've had a good life and I'm ready to go now.”

Poll questions nothwithstanding, maybe that is how most people who know their death is imminent really view their lives. Or maybe it's just how my mother rolled.

If the latter, it apparently runs in the family because I have few if any regrets. Or rather, when circumstances have brought me to moments of regret, I wail for awhile or, when I have behaved badly or made a poor choice, wallow in the pain for a period, allow myself to grieve and then get back to living.

What I have, rather than regrets about what I have not done, is a curiosity about what I have done and left behind:

”Although I don’t dwell on this, it interests me to think there are things I may already have done for the last time and don’t realize it yet.

“At first, the idea pierces my heart reeking, as it does, of the end being nigh. On further thought, however, I find that it would be good if I could know I would never do that thing again, to mourn it a bit, maybe light a candle for its passing out of my life and send it on its way with a hug and kiss.”

When I wrote those words on this blog 11 years ago, I still lived in New York City. Since then I have lived in Portland, Maine for four years and then moved on to Oregon where I live now. But that 2005 list of things I may have done for the last time hasn't changed much. Here it is:

  1. Swim naked in a secret stream on a hot summer day

  2. Dance the tango (if I still know how)

  3. Drive down the highway in a convertible at 100 miles an hour with Joe Cocker’s Cry Me a River blasting at full volume

  4. Make love

  5. Walk the beach alone in northern Oregon at 6AM

  6. Walk Greenwich Village streets in a blizzard

  7. Read all of Shakespeare’s plays

  8. Visit London, Paris and the towns in the hills above the southern coast of Spain

In the eleven years gone by, only two items have changed: I have done number 5 again and I would definitely change number 6. I am not so interested in walkiing in the blizzard, although that's nice. Today, I would rewrite it thusly: Return to live in Greenwich Village, or any part of Manhattan.

Okay, it looks like I do have one regret - having left New York City. But it definitely will not be what's on my mind as my life draws to an end.

Ultimately, for me anyway, regrets – even one of this much personal pain – are absurd, as American poet Richard Siken has pointed out:

“Eventually something you love is going to be taken away. And then you will fall to the floor crying.

“And then, however much later, it is finally happening to you: you’re falling to the floor crying thinking, 'I am falling to the floor crying,' but there’s an element of the ridiculous to it — you knew it would happen and, even worse, while you’re on the floor crying you look at the place where the wall meets the floor and you realize you didn’t paint it very well.”

It may take a while to get there, but what else is there to think about when there is no way to change past events.

It is worth ending this as I did in 2005, noting that I will take time now and then to recall the things I may have done for the last time because Madeleine L’Engle knew what she was talking about when she wrote:

"I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be...This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages...but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide…"

      - A Circle of Quiet [1972]


It's an interesting time for me, but I do have time for reflection. It has occurred to me that I have behaved despicably twice that I'm conscious of, and there's that one time when she wanted to talk and I didn't make time to listen. There's no way of knowing what might have been and nothing I'd wish out of my life now. I'm also pretty sure that, if I'd known then what I know now, I'd probably have screwed up otherwise; so I acknowledge these and remind myself to be a better person and more attentive to others as I move on.
Thank you, Ronnie.

I think as one becomes elderly, and not merely "getting older," one realizes undeniably both that life itself is a death sentence and that one has already lived a long time. To die before either of those realizations occur is to feel cheated somehow.

My mom was a good model for me. She went gracefully, with words such as your mom shared, surrounded by family at 90 after a botched medical procedure for which she cast no blame.

So were my grandmother and aunt, who were lucid and active until 107 and 101, respectively. Death's obvious looming was all but meaningless to both of them. They just carried on as if life itself was just a battery that they knew would run out, but not when.

One thing I've never liked is the term "bucket list." Not sure why, though. Maybe because I like being too busy working to have one. Or maybe because I don't like thinking about doing anything for the last time. (And maybe I think that because I'm only 68.)

My main regret in life is I didn't know what I know now back then.

Maybe I'm naive, but I still think I have enough time to accomplish some of my ambitions. I don't regret not doing specific things. Maybe I'll regret more as time runs out. I'm only 64.

I love that Madeleine L’Engle quote and had never heard it before. Thank you, Ronni. What a lovely thought to hold onto.

I love that Madeleine L'Engle quote, too, and I find it oddly comforting. I really like my young self and it's nice to see someone else embrace her other selves, too.

This is an astute post. I have two, maybe three, things I really regret, and I draw on them in talking to younger people so they can make of them what they will. But in certain moments, moments of simply pure joy and moments of gratitude, I know I've been lucky and fortunate and life doesn't owe me anything.

Most of the time I'm not in those moments, but this post is reminding me of how profound they are. Perhaps I need to remind myself of them more.

When talking with my sister just before her death at age 80, I remember her expressing gratitude for a life of 80 years. She noted that so many people never reach the age of 80 and she recounted many of the inventions and pleasures she experienced including learning how to drive, having a cell phone, and enjoying her children, grand children, and great grand children. She also expressed gratitude for solitude in her later years -- solitude that allowed her to think deeply about her life and its meaning. She never told me about the things she would never do again although I'm sure she considered these.
Thanks for a great post. It has encouraged me, at 70, to consider what might be over in my life and what blessings I continue to enjoy.

I don't have regrets about the major choices I've made. I'm glad to be childless -- I don't think I could have endured the hardships and chaos of parenting toddlers. I was the eldest of six, and I knew from early childhood that raising kids was not for me. But I'm glad that in my 2nd marriage I married a man with children, and that we enjoy his children and grandchildren.

My only regret is that I had a difficult childhood and couldn't love my parents. But my relationship with them couldn't have been better because of who they were and the history they had to live through (WWII in Germany and the antisemitism they professed all their lives). They were difficult for me and I was difficult for them. I'm grateful that my life turned out much better than I imagined it could be when I was in my early 20s.

I also hate the term "bucket list." Is that because I can't think of anything put on such a list? Because there's nothing that needs to go on the list, I'll take it as a sign of relative contentment.

Realizing that time truly is running out for me at 77, I feel this constant pressure to get my house in order plus continue to do new and exciting things.

For me, I feel once I settle into what seems to be the solitude years, where I am not nearly as interesting or needed in my family circle as I once was, then life will have little meaning. Therefore, I hit the floor running each day. Like someone else mentioned, I know its pretty imminent that my battery is going to run out relatively soon so I always feel impelled to make the most of what's left of it.

I don't have many regrets. I feel like I've led a very interesting and full life but I do regret that I spent too much time keeping my house spotless when that time would have been better spent exposing my five children to more adventures. They were my biggest accomplishment and I didn't realize they would be gone before I knew it!

We wouldn't be human if we didn't have regrets.
Learn from them and move on.

Still, when considering the inability to 'do' things one more time?
The doing is fleeting, the remembering is forever.

A sound, flash of light, or passage in a book can send me back to a special memory.
What a gift that is. I am so glad to have it.

I think Frank Sinatra sang it for me. "Regrets? I've had a few, but one thing I know - I did it my way."

For some time I had a regret that I didn't speak the words that I wanted to when I had the opportunity, but now it no longer matters. And it probably wouldn't have mattered at the time. It just felt like unfinished business.

Given the same set of circumstances I probably wouldn't (or couldn't) have lived my life any differently that I did so why dwell on it . Keep the good memories and try to forget the bad.

Richard Siken's quote is outstanding! It makes no sense to me to focus on regret. I guess that's (as you said about your mother) how I roll. Great post.

I have never believed in having regrets.. You can't go back and change your actions, but you can move forward with a lesson learned. I feel so lucky to have lived this long at 74 and to see all of my children and grandchildren grow and to see great grandchildren appearing in the picture. I got my degrees after raising my children and feel that I have done it all and had a good, if somewhat chaotic, life with a lot of experiences.

One of the things that I really enjoy is when I purchase something that needs replacing and know that I won't ever have to do it again...There is something in doing things for the last time that just gives me a giggle.

Ronni, I loved the quote by Richard Siken, "while you’re on the floor crying you look at the place where the wall meets the floor and you realize you didn’t paint it very well.”
That is so true...there is always something to pull you back into the present moment!!

Thank you for this post. Always something to think about!!

The question of life's regrets pops up every now and then, and usually I don't give it much thought. But, now that I am in my seventh decade, I think it's time that I at least make a stab at facing my own misgivings.
After much thought, and discarding the usual regrets like not preparing for my retirement as well as I should have, or perhaps I could have been more assertive and not have been taken for granted as much, I decided on the only two regrets that, had they turned out differently, my life would have been very distinctively beter .
My biggest regret in life is that I wasn't able to keep my marriage together. How I could have used her wisdom, her guidance and companionship these past few years.
And with that, I am sorry I don't have any children.
I am the last member of my family still alive. With my demise comes the end to my family's history. For this, I apologize to all of my dear departed ancestors.

I agree with Darlene ... I too, for better or for worse, "did it my way". And I loved every minute it -- the good, the bad and the ugly. It's been a wild ride and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Regrets - just last week, I mentioned to my younger sister that I regret that my my last couple of healthy years were spent dealing with our abusive, ill-tempered mother as she descended into dementia. She asked if that meant I was angry with her and my other siblings, to which I replied that no, I was angry with our mother and with fate.

Having received an unexpected and unfortunate diagnosis one month after retiring at age 62 last fall, what I most regret in my life has not yet been taking up my thoughts. Unlike the previous generations in my family, I will never become one of the oldest old.

Oh, there are are many things I would have done differently, but I've often said I wished I'd done more of what I did do!

Though I am told I could have years left, “bucket list” is not part of my lexicon; I don’t have the finances to indulge in such things. I have been given time to plan and get things in order, to spend time with the few family members and friends I have left, to make sure my pets are taken care of.

Regrets? That I will be going away and not seeing my granddaughter grow up. But there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

I can't thank you enough, Ronnie, for offering a place where we can think and talk about what is really important. Today's post is a perfect example.

The only regret I have is not keeping better journals throughout my life. I tended to write only during particularly dark times and am amazed at how much I have forgotten. I wish I had kept logs of the funny and crazy things that my kids said and did. I wish I had written down all the names of people I slept with! I wish I could remember more about my time in the convent, much of it is a big blank!

I have been urged by many to write a book someday but am afraid I would have to invent most of it!

Oh, by the way, if any old friends of mine are reading this, would you please copy any old letters you saved from me and send them to me? Thanks, I really appreciate it!

Just had my 74th birthday. I still have dreams and plans. My life did not go at all like I thought it would! It's been interesting and often a lot of fun. I have some "wish I hadn't said or done that," so I work at being better and not repeating the same old stuff.

I thought I'd travel, see the world, but I've turned out to be a homebody who sticks a lot with family, related and chosen. My travel has been in the states I've lived in and British Columbia, seeing the history, trying to learn the geology, people, and weather and art. I'm pretty optimistic but realize I may be getting to the 'don't buy green bananas stage,' not sure when that is actually. I used to be a hiker and sometimes in the wee hours I realize I have certainly waited too long to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and I get bummed. Finally I got a map out and figured out the places I could just walk onto the trail and take some friends and have a picnic. Don't weep about what you missed, just do whatever you can.

Every morning my eyes open and I think "wow" I'm still here and walking around.

Today's post is nothing short of profound. I had tears by the end. It spoke to me not so much of regrets, but of the joy of remembering. What a quote by Madeleine L'Engle! I remember when I was a teen and just knew my parents were way too old to be able to remember how I felt. But now I know better. I can so vividly recall emotions and sensory images from childhood and my teen years. A song, a smell, the feel of the air easily transport me to my past. These are not the 'big moments' in life, just times of no real significance that remind me of the great joy I've experienced. I certainly feel like all those moments and ages are still in me.

I remember a quote from a documentary I saw years ago about someone with a terminal illness. He said, "I'm not afraid of dying, but I'm afraid of not living." My sentiments exactly.

I have few regrets and they are all inconsequential. But the thought of never doing some things again is so sad. And like all of us, as I age, there are more and more things that I enjoyed that I must say good-bye to. My only consolation is that knowledge, as in the quote, that they are still a part of me and that I only need to smell fresh snow to feel like I'm skiing again, to smell alfalfa to be horseback riding once again, to hear certain music to be transported back to a college party or a foreign country, or that at the sound of tumbling water I am once again hopping from rock to rock across a stream. And often I need no prompt, but can conjure up those smells or sounds myself, and I am young and able-bodied still.

Thanks for the reminder of how beautiful life can still be!

Wonderful post! As I enter my seventh decade I can honestly say I have no regrets... Mistakes - absolutely, lessons learned - yep, missed opportunities - those too. But as I entered my 60s I realized I kind of liked myself, that my life had been and was still good, rich, full. And all of the above had gone into making it so...

No bucket lists either, but am working out how to add meaning to the days and years ahead. One of the most important lessons, still ongoing, is the Letting Go lesson. Maybe that's where the regrets went 😝

Enjoyed all of these comments, especially Diane's, Miki's, and Ellen's...

On the lighter side I have just visited my gastroenterologist, and was told that this will be my last colonoscopy since he does not do them after 80. Yahoo!

Well! Your entire post spoke to my heart.

I've been away from blogging and reading blogs for awhile and it wasn't until after I'd written my first post since 2013 that I clicked on your link (still on my sidebar, btw) and read this. Ronnie, you never cease to amaze me. You articulate so precisely what's only been percolating in my brain. Thank you.

And I love that Madeleine L'Engle quote, too.

What Miki Davis said, and this:

I regret letting Bobby Walter talk me into sitting on one end of a teeter-totter.

"Come on, I promise I won't flip you. Trust me."

Trust is a funny thing.

Bobby Walter.

Flipping Bobby Walter.

I can still feel the lump on my forehead.

I've always heard that people more often regret what they didn't do rather than what they did. And I find, looking back, that most of the things I thought I regretted were actually necessary links in a chain of events that led to a good place. Had those regrettable things not happened, I wouldn't have ended up where I am now, and I'm quite content with where I am. There are some things I still want to do, and after the challenging year I've had, I feel more urgency to do those things ... at least those I'm still physically able to do. I read somewhere recently "Don't die till you're dead." I need to tattoo that on my forehead.

A lot to think about since I first read the topic and comments in the early AM....I realized that when I got a divorce at the age of 42 I cried because I knew that I would never have another baby. That was odd because I never wanted any more after I had my three wonderful children.... 2nd husband tried to talk me into getting preggers for 8 years.

I do not regret much but do wish that I had been nicer to my 2 daughters-in-law much earlier in our relationship. Too soon old, too late smart, as my mother used to say.

I like Kurt Vonnegut's idea - remember the good things and forget the bad.

I haven't learned how to "let go" of all negative things from the past. However, I do know that I would not be in this place in life if it weren't for "everything" that I've experienced over the years (good and bad). I'm happier now and freer than I ever was before. As I get closer to 70, I realize how lucky I am to have a wonderful man in my life for the last five years, my son is very happy with his long-time love, and my mother is still vital at 95 years of age. I realize there are things I'll never get to do and places I will never see, but I'm content with it all. Although every once in a while, I wish I could run like the wind and do a cartwheel.

My favorite saying: No amount of guilt can solve the past, and no amount of anxiety can change the future.

Interesting comments to a very interesting post. At 75, I am not ready to give up on living, and I hope to reach at least the age my birth mother did - 87. I have a few regrets, but I am working on giving them up; trying to focus on the positive moments in my past.

I do wish we could travel more, but my husband's stroke made that impossible, and I have to accept that inevitability. One thing that had been on my bucket list forever will never happen now - for two reasons. I am too old (and lack the strength) to climb the pyramids in Egypt, and that country has made it against the law to climb them. That I do regret.

Loved the L'Engle quote. Last night as I fell asleep I felt I was being held in my mother's arms. It was extremely satisfying to have a sense of being that child again/still at some level. I have spent a lot of my adult life protecting my inner child from all the pains of life, while also taking risks that taunted them. Such is any life. I'm so glad to be alive today. Thanks Ronni, another great topic!

I traveled some when I was younger, but not anymore and I don't regret it. I probably did stay with the wrong spouse too long, but eventually we got out. And yes, I do wish I'd studied harder as a kid. Too late for that. But there's still time to take more chances. And just for the record, B and I still do make love and dance the tango ... to be honest, we're not very good at either one, but that doesn't stop us from trying!

As for regrets, I try to forgive myself by remembering the Maya Angelou quote: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better”. I also try to re-frame the ‘will never do again’ list by reminiscing about the many wonderful life experiences I was lucky to have in the first place.
Thanks to Ronni and all the commentators for opening up about this important topic on life review.

Great post Ronni. Never say never.

So many of these comments have expressed my feelings better than I could have - Simone, Jane d, Frank, Ines.

I had dinner with an old friend last night who has steadfastly ignored politics her entire life, but is paying attention now - and experiencing real fear, as am I.

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