My Real-Life “Regrets of the Dying” and How it Makes Me Live

“All I really want from life is more time to think about it. And fewer meetings.” —

Today I rediscovered The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, captured by an end-of-life nurse and reproduced by Austin Kleon in his blog post, Checking In With Death. Having faced at 29 the idea that my own life could end much sooner than expected, and having long-survived that news, I decided from Kleon’s reminder it’s time for my own brief check-in. What did I find important when I real-life faced The End? And, did I fix the things?

I say it on the back cover of my book about the experience: When I thought I was dying, all I wanted were people. I was a few weeks pregnant, diagnosed with a rare, aggressive tumor in the soft tissue of my shoulder and told if the sarcoma reached my lungs, quite probably neither I nor the baby would live.

Life shortened quickly with this news, but it took some time to come into focus. I had expected, after all, a very specific reaction. I had expected seize the day. I should want to do things now — sky-dive, see the Eiffel Tower, swim with sharks. That’s the deal, right? We regret the big, exciting things we never did? But, no. Like the people with the common 5 Regrets, my wish was quieter.

I wanted a room and all the people I loved in it. I just wanted to look at them really — we so rarely look at those we love and take them in. I also wanted to thank them. You made my life what it was, I would have said. You made me. And I’m grateful.

My disease has recurred three times since then. I’ve gained a little chutzpah with each experience, and my wish list is a little more colorful than it used to be. Still, when I thought I might be facing a short walk to forever, I didn’t want to go or try anything. I wanted to be.

In The Top Five Regrets of the Dying people wished they had lived more true to themselves. They wished they hadn’t worked so much and had expressed their feelings more. They wished they’d stayed in touch with friends, and they wished they’d let themselves be happier.

Four of those five things require a life-sized dose of full-on self-awareness. You can’t live more true to yourself if you don’t know what that is. If you have any ambition at all — any ethics, or a visionary employer — without regular sessions to wake up and look around, you’ll probably work too much. You’ll have no feelings to express if you don’t feel them, and we have no idea what makes us happy if we don’t slow down and think about it.

This became my wish — more time to think about it. Maybe it’s the introvert in me, but I’ve grown mad for white space. I grab it every chance I can, to stay awake, every day, to that quiet room at the end. I imagine it often. The aesthetics matter more to me now that I’ve had more time. I want the room to be beautiful. This is why I embraced so thoroughly the simplicity movement. Less clutter makes more room for life and love and all those feelings we’ll express. The people are still there, though the plan now is to thank my friends and loved ones in real-time so there’s less of that to do at the end. The next part in the quiet, beautiful room is the peaceful feeling that Yes, I did, and finis.

This is what the room becomes in life:

  • Less stuff, more meaning — Living makes more sense to me when there is space for it. Plus, with increased chutzpah I actually do want to go places occasionally; and this is so much more likely without the weight of stuff.
  • Extravagant white space — As often as the power in me lies, I take a beat. Every day, every drive, every sunset, date night, new baby, minute with Grandma, bouquet, Saturday game. Notice beautiful longer, watch my son’s profile long enough to see the change one week later when it’s already chiseled and more mannish because they grow in heartbeats. The time to wonder if you’re working too much is within the work day. And with everything, every day, more than once, take the time to reflect. Our days become our life. We are making this.
  • Well-defined enough — There is a beautiful tension between dreams and happiness. As a full-on dreamer, I have quite a list of what I hope to accomplish with my writing. How do I deal with this in light of death’s uncertainty? For any of us, death could be sooner than the minimal amount of time the dream could take. I face this tension by deeply defining my own sense of enough. I learned to feel that doing is as whole as having done. Should I find myself in the actual room again — the one so near the end — I will define my sense of accomplishment not by a list of finished products or awards but by the way I spent that day and the day before and the days and days before that. Was I doing the dream? Did I write? Did I love it? Then, it’s enough.

I still remember what it’s like to sit on an exam table and be told the thing you fear. I remember asking my mother, “How do I live now?”

Years later, I’m cancer-free, the baby is a healthy almost-teen, and I know the answer. I’m going to make sure there’s enough space in my life to face the uncertainty of death — a thing uncertain for all of us. I’m going to use the space to live the good stuff twice and learn from all the rest or let it go. And I’m going to write (or whatever the dream requires) and be satisfied the doing is enough.

Author: THE THANK YOU ROOM (memoir)

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