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Harnessing Regret

Abby's Corner

By Abigail Thomas

When I heard that The Bucket was going to be focusing on death-bed regrets and how to avoid them, I pounced. There’s no other word for it. I began writing immediately. I would wake up at three in the morning, get out of bed and write. It was a little strange to be so rabidly and rapidly drawn in, although it was probably the word deathbed that grabbed me.  I’m 82. That, and regret. I have some experience with regret. 

At my age, there’s not much future left, but I have an awful lot of past. I think of it as compost, layers and layers of compost, a metaphor I am proud of because that’s exactly what it is. I began to list some of what simmers in my compost, scraps of pain, shrieks of laughter, moments of deep pleasure, terror, sorrow, grief, a lone feather that drifted past my window three years ago, rain, guilt, and oh god words, so many words spoken or whispered or shouted, written, read, memorized, everything bundled together willy-nilly with George Herbert’s “Love Bade Me Welcome,” a poem I can’t recite without bursting into tears. The trouble was that no matter what I included, it felt as if I was leaving everything out, so I decided to stick with the feather. I still prefer calling it compost,  because I’ve been plundering that fertile mess for years,  but when I’m dead it might as well have been just that one feather. 

What is regret? I think of regret as what guilt turns into when it grows up. Or when we do.

So after the poorly improvised list of what my past consists of, I wrote “and a lot of regret.” One lone feather and a lot of regret.  What is regret? I think of regret as what guilt turns into when it grows up. Or when we do. Guilt is useful when we’re young, the discomfort of guilt illuminates how preferable it is to be kind and thoughtful rather than mean and careless, but guilt is often accompanied by shame, and that combination had a tendency to freeze me in its headlights, a kind of narcissistic paralysis where it was all about me, and I had no idea what to do to make anything or anyone better. A shotgun wedding at 18,  four children, two divorces. I was guilty of something or everything all the time.

Years passed. I began to grow up. The tiny perimeter in which I had tried to live my life had all but disappeared, and maybe forgiveness seeped under the door, or grace through the open windows, I don’t know, but gradually the guilt that had crippled me turned into regret. Regret does not cripple, it allows you, no, it urges you to engage and apologize if that’s what’s called for, or simply be of use to those who matter most—sometimes with words, sometimes with actions, often with laughter. I never want to outgrow regret. It’s part of being human, and in a funny way, it rounds out a life. I have learned to live with it. I am grateful for it.  Regret can hang out around my deathbed anytime.

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About the Writer

Abigail Thomas has four children and twelve grandchildren. She was asked to leave Bryn Mawr in her freshman year because she was pregnant. She never looked back. She has published three works of fiction, Getting Over Tom; An Actual Life; and Herbs Pajamas. Her memoirs include Safekeeping; A Three Dog Life; and What Comes Next and How to Like It. She lives in Woodstock NY with her two dogs.

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