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:
- Swim naked in a secret stream on a hot summer day
- Dance the tango (if I still know how)
- Drive down the highway in a convertible at 100 miles an hour with Joe Cocker’s Cry Me a River blasting at full volume
- Make love
- Walk the beach alone in northern Oregon at 6AM
- Walk Greenwich Village streets in a blizzard
- Read all of Shakespeare’s plays
- 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