Coulda Shoulda Woulda

“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.

31 thoughts on “Coulda Shoulda Woulda

  1. Not so many people are comfortable to speak about death, as if we are not going to die. I get a lot of crazy looks when I tell people that death is a given because when you are born you are ready to die. And now I will add what you just said, “Screw it, you just have to live for whatever joy you can get.” I like that!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I know someone who spent years painting the same Scottish mountain. Not sure i could have coped, but he seemed happy enough! 😊


      1. Cezanne did something like that at the end if his life, didn’t he, painting a mountain? Obsessive, perhaps, but also first fragmenting and then bringing colours and shapes back together to form a representation. A re-evaluation maybe.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Interesting thought, would it feel different painting a mountain over and over because you are paid to, or doing it because you have an obsessive need to do so? The action would be the same, but I think the emotion would not. Hmm, now you got me pondering… 🙂

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  2. I think there are few people who don’t have regrets at the end of their life, however much of worth they may done. Actor and comedienne Tracey Ullman recently did a tv sketch on this theme, a woman on her death bed who wished she’d played more Candy Crush. Personally I couldn’t bear it. The game, I mean.

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  3. Profound, insightful writing. I hope to grow up and write as well as you. Seriously. You are teaching me. Great insight into dying, one which I didn’t expect. If you can’t live to avoid those death bed wishes, then, yeah, find Joy in every moment you can! (On a personal note, my latest blog post got a record number of likes. Do you think it’s because I went a bit more political? I can’t imagine it’s qualitatively better than any other post…It’ll be up for another 48 hours.) Looking forward to more of your writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, high praise indeed! 🙂 Wrt your popular post, I guess maybe because it’s a topic that’s got everyone stirred up, people would be more likely to find it. It’s a shame, but quality isn’t really what gets attention. Don’t give up on quality though!

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  4. to think a bit on a comment here …. doing something because it’s a passion – and it literally has captured you – i.e. painting a scene repeatedly – well, technically, it is never the same twice and neither is the one holding the brush – and when some thing has completely captivated you and holds you in the best embrace e.v.e.r. – then no, it’s not the same damn thing. At all. I think this applies to any aspect of life. If one is lucky from time to time.

    interesting story here – too many “how to books” in the world, and I’m beginning to realize, just not enough “just do it” …. not necessarily recklessly, carelessly or without some thought and consideration, but if death is the one certainty after first breath? then really? what’s the point in constantly racing with the rats. and no, the grass really isn’t always greener, even if we slip off rose-coloured glasses 😉

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    1. No point racing with the rats! (I love this phrasing, had to repeat it 🙂 ) I guess we all have to find our own route, finds what captivates us, and enjoy it. Find our own way of doing things and delight! For me, just reminding myself that my life is good, and it is what I chose, makes me happy, because for some reason I keep forgetting.

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      1. you’re not the only one who forgets …. we all do …. and all it takes is a few bad moments lining up …. so yeah, when we can remember that anything is and can be “good” according to ourselves …. then that’s the ultimate prize 🙂

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  5. Found you from your like of my latest post. I like your blog, and you are good at this writing thing! 🙂

    I like the message of this story. Once when I was younger I was home alone in bed, and I heard a loud crack, like a tree falling nearby. I said “Well, if one lands on me I’ve had fun”, and went back to sleep.

    When I woke up later I looked outside and yeah, part of the tree outside the back door had fallen off in the wind, and its branches were scraping the side of the house.

    I think that’s all I want. To have had fun. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you stopped by and enjoyed the story. I think fun is definitely a good way to pass a life, if we all end up the same way in the end, might as well enjoy it. 🙂


  6. I found it so funny that someone who had seemingly picked the perfect life and there he is complaining about grubs and not being with the right person. Is that our fate to never be satisfied whether we quietly accept our fate or grab fate and shake it and decide our own.

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    1. An interesting thought, I think some people have a never-be-satisfied nature, I know I do. It’s good in that I keep striving for more (like you say, grabbing and shaking it), it’s daft in that I forget to appreciate what I already have. So you’re totally right, we need to do the grabbing, but maybe also we need to take a moment to simply enjoy what we have. Does that make sense?

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  7. Thought provoking….i agree with the idea of just appreciating the little chunks of niceness as they come along. Life- and everything within it- is ephemeral.

    I think one of the big mistakes we humans make is to expect anything to last forever. Just look at relationships, for example. When they end, we seem to discard them as mistakes. Yet, ( assuming it wasn’t awful and abusive or something) all the love and joy experienced within it while it DID last isn’t suddenly rendered meaningless and invalid just because it didn’t last forever. If we couldn’t make it last, we see it as a failure of some sort. We’re so resistant to change.

    Hmm…then again, the Uncle thought that a drastic change is what would help, so maybe i’m just speaking out of my arse here. But he made that change as a way of evading something, rather than letting life take it’s course.

    But it’s good to take risks; take control too, so who knows!….Maybe what’s required is a certain receptivity to unpredictability? To embrace opportunity and follow our goals, whilst simultaneously remaining flexible and open to the fact that nothing is set in stone…

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  8. I think, in this story the uncle was doing fine, up until the point he got old and ill and started to regret. Because you’re right, accepting change, taking risks, embracing opportunity are all very important, and all things that the uncle did.

    My experience is: no matter how you live your life, you might end up regretting things, because when you are dying and can no longer make plans, you will have to face the fact that there are things that you will never do. That’s tough, but there’s no point living to try and stop it from happening, and it isn’t some supreme wisdom you need to live up to. Better to just live however makes you happy now, do your best to make the right decisions now, and don’t worry about how you might feel about it later.

    It’s something I feel really strongly about, because before I had the accident, I was swayed by those Deathbed Regret Lists, so I lived my life to avoid them – not working too hard, being spontaneous, being creative etc. Then I had the accident and for a long time thought I would never be able to do anything again with my life, and I regretted EVERYTHING. I regretted that I didn’t work harder, that I never dedicated myself fully to one career or task. I regretted that I’d always been ‘true to myself’ and as a result had annoyed people, and never fitted in. See, that doesn’t mean that how I’d lived my life was wrong, or that my regrets were wrong – they were both just different ways of seeing and doing things, with good points and bad points. The only thing I did wrong was feeling the regret – because I’d done the best I could at the time.

    I hope that makes sense, it’s the kind of thing I can rant on about for hours, without making any clear points.
    TLDR: a person on their deathbed is not any better at making decisions than you are now.

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  9. Absolutely. Regret is just another regret, isn’t it? It’s unavoidable at the end of the day, innit. Out of all possible choices about anything you can only pick, after all. There’s really no “right” or “wrong” in the grand scheme of things, is there? Only what you “feel” is right at the time. And these feelings are clearly able to morph or distort over time.

    P.s. Sorry i didn’t reply to this sooner! It seems that not all replies come up in the side bar. I’ve missed a few about the place lately, so i’m glad i went looking to check. Also, i am quite ditzy 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly, regret is sometimes given this greater significance, but it is only another feeling.
      With the missing comments thing – I do that! So don’t worry (and I am also ditzy 😉 )

      Liked by 1 person

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