It seems that I’ve read more and more posts and memes lately about people—artists and innovators, particularly—pursuing their dreams so they won’t have any regrets at the ends of their lives. One was from Anne Lammot, and I gave her a resounding, “Yes!” After all, I was raised by parents who believe that it is more important to do something fulfilling than pocket-filling. My father has always been baffled by people who suffer through a miserable work week to make it to a weekend during which they will spend half their time bemoaning that it’s almost over. It is a wonderful ideal, to wake up excited about work every day. But what if it doesn’t pay the bills? There is a reason we’re called “starving artists.”
The question for the artist in me is: If I give up on a writing career, will I regret it when I’m eighty? But an even more important question is: If I die tomorrow, what regrets will I have? Put another way, if I knew I only had twenty-four hours left to live, what would I do?
This is a question that was posed to my mother’s Sunday school class twenty-nine or thirty years ago, when I was a baby. Her answer (in part, at least) was that she would still have the same number of diapers to change during that twenty-four hour period as during any other; even if she was leaving a number of unfulfilled dreams, she was still the mother of a dependent baby.
For myself, I would probably spend too much time writing instructions or creating spreadsheets of online usernames and passwords for my husband. What I cannot imagine saying is, “Gosh, I’m not published yet; I’d better get on it.” Mainly, I hope, I would want to be with my family. There are people every day who go home from hospitals, unable to be treated, and their only goal is to spend what time they have left with their families. Those who are left behind will have to survive on the memories made during that time.
As a healthy young woman, I could easily live another forty to fifty years. I could also easily pull out onto a busy street tomorrow and get hit by a careless driver. I apologize if this seems like a downer, and I certainly don’t want to live with my last will and testament in my back pocket, but I also don’t want to forget that life is so short and precious.
My husband and I pretty much follow Dave Ramsey’s guide to debt-free living (see The Total Money Makeover Workbook), and we’re well on our way. Ramsey promotes a lifestyle of delayed gratitude, which I think is healthy (the real world won’t give me a cookie just because I kick and scream for it), but in a way, it’s also sad that many people will never make it there. I don’t mean that a debt-free life is unattainable, just that it could possibly be attained and then not enjoyed. Several years ago, I met a woman who told me that she and her husband had everything they wanted after he retired. They finally had the means and time to travel, and they bought their dream house. It was there that he died, less than a year later, the victim of cancer. Sometimes, she said, they laughed hysterically at the irony of it all: they finally had the house in which they had always wanted to spend the rest of their lives together, yet the rest of their lives wasn’t long enough to enjoy everything for which they had saved.
I still follow the Dave Ramsey method to a point, but Thomas and I also decided that living on beans now so we can enjoy steak and lobster some thirty years down the road is not exactly how we want to live and raise our kids. If our vacations are modest road trips that only last a few days at a time, at least we hope to make good memories with our boys as long as we are able. And if we can achieve a more comfortable lifestyle in the future, so much the better.
With money and careers in mind, there is a part of me that has always said, “When I publish, I’ll finally prove that I’ve done something. The last piece of the puzzle will be in place.” But another part of me knows that I’ve already done a lot, and publishing does not guarantee authorial success, nor does it guarantee mansions or good health or unanimous acclaim.
About five years ago, I met an out-of-state friend for coffee. While we summarized everything we’d done and all we’d hoped we would do by that point in our lives, I lamented that a writing career seemed impossible to attain. I’d gone to a good school that turned out lawyers and doctors, and what was I doing? She pointed out that I was happily married and a mother. She couldn’t say either of those things for herself. Although she had achieved a level of success that I never hoped to claim for myself, she graded me according to different standards. I never thought someone would look at my life and think it enviable.
Similarly, in Bess Streeter Aldrich’s A Lantern in Her Hand, Abbie Deal gives up a possible musical career to marry the love of her life and raise a family. Her children never appreciate her true potential, how great she could have been. They don’t really understand her at all, in fact. Two of her daughters make conscious decisions to never have children and never marry, respectively, in order to pursue careers instead. Only the one who doesn’t marry regrets her decision later in life, when it’s too late to go back to the man who once loved her.
Abbie Deal made a choice that many people wouldn’t—and don’t—make. She chose something for herself—love—but something so much more than herself: she chose relationships, in this case, a relationship with her family. Abbie Deal lived a (fictional) life that I consider was without regret, even though it wasn’t what she initially wanted.
When I think about the people who are going home to spend their remaining time with their families, I realize how important yet how difficult it is to live in the present. What if the present is stressful? As much as I want to spend time with my little boys, my husband and I still have to earn enough money to keep them fed and clothed. And sometimes spending time with them isn’t what I want. I want something for me; I want to read or write or simply have a few moments’ peace.
There must be a balance. Whenever the end of my life is, if I have the luxury of any kind of reflection, I don’t want to wish that I’d spent more time with my family; I want to be thankful for all the time we did spend together. I don’t want them to say, “Well, we didn’t get to see her much, but thank goodness she had such a successful writing career.” (At this point, they won’t be saying that anyway, but they might lament that I spent too much time chasing said career.)
While I won’t for a minute say that I’m totally selfless, that I never make decisions based on what I want to make myself happy, I hope that I can share my life and my time with the people I love. Since I won’t be able to take anything with me anyway, I can leave a legacy of many meaningful memories. Besides, watching my two little boogers dive face-first into Nutella and recite Mother’s Day poems provide good fodder for creative writing, anyway.