A few days ago I stumbled across a poignant blog post on Facebook. The essay, written by a hospice nurse, recounted the top five regrets people in their final days had shared with her over the years.
I found the five laments to be profound.
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I didn’t work so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
They resonated especially strongly with me because only two years ago, my mom spent her last ten weeks of life living (actually, she was dying) with my family. Her wishes: To eat bacon and M&Ms. To have a cat sleep on her bed at night. To watch old Billie Jean King matches on the Tennis Channel. To listen to her three grandchildren play rambunctious games of indoor basketball one wall away from her pillow. To have a goodnight kiss from me.
It was a time like no other, as precious to me as the first few days of my children’s lives.
A day or so after reading the nurse’s words, I saw a post (thank heavens for Facebook) about my upcoming 25th year college reunion. Harvard makes a big deal out of the 25th gathering. Alumni, kids and spouses are all invited for five days of extravagant fun – Camp Harvard for the children, Red Sox games at Fenway, a Boston Pops concert, a cruise down the Charles River, graduation with its powerful joy. Most of the reunion previews to date have sounded decidedly festive: Updates about children, adventures and careers, planning panels and get-togethers, the pros and cons of staying in the dorms or nearby, more civilized and more expensive, hotels.
But this entry hit me with surprise – giving me that feeling you get when a gust of wind unexpectedly knocks off your hat. It was an announcement of a memorial service to honor classmates who have died since our 1987 graduation. Over 25 out of a class of 1,600 are gone. Killed by a drunk driver. Suicide. Cancer. Operation Iraqi Freedom. The World Trade Center. Attacked outside a gay bar. Cause of death unknown.
I did not know any of them personally. But I couldn’t believe the news.
Percentage-wise, 1.6% is not terribly high. I felt like shaking myself – of course any group now in their late 40s would include several casualties. Statistically it makes sense. From some perspectives, my class should count ourselves blessed.
But the list was a mortality check, which I suppose any 25th reunion is meant to be. Reunions also naturally trigger sentimentality. Predictably, I felt unbearably sad for those 25 lost friends and their families.
And lucky. I thought of all my own near-miss car accidents. The times my physically abusive first husband held a loaded gun to my head. The afternoon I dropped an electric cord in our swimming pool. The freak kitchen fire that went out by itself. The cancerous mole a dermatologist found before it spread.
In ways that are not sentimental or artificial or temporary or predictable, I am grateful for my great good luck. And determined to heed the warnings of those top five regrets.