“They told me I wouldn’t regret if I followed their rules,” whispered my uncle; his body was shrivelled and hunched, but his eyes were burning with indignation. “They said, these are the things people regret on their death beds, and they listed them. As if you could sum up all human experience in a list. As if we’re all the same.”
“I know Uncle Andy,” I said, gingerly patting his hand, scared to break the fragile skin. But I didn’t understand, I had no idea what the problem was. Uncle Andy had had a great life. He had six kids and a loving wife. At thirty-seven he’d abandoned his lucrative accountancy business to go off-grid. He took his family to Italy to live on the beach, he had spent ten years selling his paintings to tourists. Most people would do anything to live Uncle Andy’s life, even Andy himself had liked it at the time. However, now he was nearing the end, as cancer claimed one cell after the other and chemo scrunched him up like a piece of paper, Andy was talking as if his life had been a waste.
“You know what they said? In their lists and articles? They said people regret not spending more time with their family, not pursuing creativity, people regret working too much. That’s why I did it, why I moved to the Amalfi coast, out of the rat-race, painting and playing with the kids.”
“Yes. And that was good, wasn’t it Uncle? That was a good time?”
“No! Ten years painting the same beach scene over and over again, to tourists with no imagination!” His rage was giving him strength as he stretched forward in the chair. Numb blue nails dug into the chair arms, wisps of hair clung to his forehead with sweat. “Nobody wanted my picture of the apocalyptic desert, or the dragon dressed as Biggles. And don’t let anyone tell you that growing your own vegetables is better than buying them in a supermarket, the number of hours I spent digging the ground for potatoes, if only I could have those hours back now. I’d use them right, if I could do it all again.” I knew this was one of stages of death. My mum, ever the pragmatist, had told me he might go through this, the emotional stages: anger, resentment.
“What would you do instead?” I asked. He had the twitch of smile, it affected his ears more than his mouth.
“Video games. They looked like fun. Who wants to pick caterpillars off cabbages when you can race cars through a war zone.”
“But time you spent with your family, that was good, wasn’t it? That was worth it?” Uncle Andy sighed as the fight drained from him, and he shrivelled a little more.
“I’m not saying it was bad, but there are seven billion people in the world and I spent it most of it with seven of them. I just keep thinking, what if there was someone better?”
No matter how my mum had prepared me, I left Uncle Andy with my heart dragging. I didn’t understand how someone with a life so well lived could feel such sorrow. Are we all doomed to lie on our death bed agonising about all the things we could have done, no matter what we did? I slouched out of the hospital, feeling the shrivelling of my own body, suddenly even my dreams weren’t enough. What if I did make that round the world boat trip? What if I did marry Jessica from Maths? I would still regret.
I was in the wood and half the way home before I worked it out. I was kicking my way through the leaves, at first in a moody manner, then with increasing glee. At one point a dog had abandoned his owner to join me and leapt around barking with delight. And I got it. Because if you’re going to regret whatever you do, then there’s no point in planning for it. Uncle Andy was sad now, but when he was living his life, he had loved it. So you can’t live life for your death bed, you can’t live trying to defy the Death Bed Regret List. Screw it, you just have to live for whatever joy you can get.