I have this birthday letter that my Grandma wrote shortly after I turned thirteen. Whenever I read it, it makes me feel very sad and I find it hard to fight back the tears. Recently, I discovered the letter was written only a month before my Grandma died which seems to give the letter more poignancy. She was 81 years of age. A large part of the memories I have around my Grandma is of her unhappiness and regrets in life.
For many years, we would visit Grandma and Grandpa on Sunday afternoons on their farm which was located about 20 minutes away from ours. Grandpa would often be out in the paddocks tending to the pigs or another farming task. He would sometimes pop into the house to say hello or us kids would find him out sitting contently under the front veranda swotting flies. If we were lucky he had some white peppermints to share. Grandpa was a happy content soul. He loved the farming life and wouldn’t have retired at all if it hadn’t been for a sudden decline in his health (following a fall I believe).
Grandma meanwhile oozed unhappiness. Mum would spend most of the afternoon tea trying to cheer her up. What I know of Grandma was that she was a city girl at heart who never liked the farm and had married my Grandpa with very different ideas about what living on a farm would be like. Grandma dreamed of getting away for holidays but most of all to travel. She had saved up a substantial amount of money to travel but died never realizing this dream. The money ended up being inheritance, divided up between my father and his two other siblings.
They say that everyone has a word that defines them, directs their pathway in life. For me it would be regret. I have this impatience and desire to get on with living life to the fullest. I am scared I will turn out like my Grandma never fulfilling her deepest desires , that I will run out of time because life is so fleeting. It doesn’t help working at a hospital where I see too often patients in an instant being given a life changing diagnosis, a terminal condition. There is a well known book by Bronnie Ware called “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” that documents the author’s experiences in working in palliative care and what she found people at the end of their life most regretted not doing. Below are the top five regrets she noticed coming up time and time again:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
I think there is another regret (related to regret number one) which personally has more significance for me. I would hate to get to the end of my life and regret that I have played it too safe and not taken risks, not aimed high, not taken opportunities because of fears. There was a really interesting study called “The Safe Project” by Dr Gay Luce of Berkeley, California (mentioned in “With Purpose- Going from Success to Significance in work and life” by Ken Dychtwald and Daniel J Kadlec) whereby 15 subjects over 60 years of age were asked to chart their highs and lows of their life on a single sheet of graph paper. Many of these 15 subjects spoke about their disappointment in having lived long periods of time on autopilot and making safe decisions.
The scariest thing about all regrets, is that often clarity (or 20/20 vision) doesn’t come until years later as to where you could have changed the outcome in your life for the better. I lived most of my 20s and early 30s without really stopping and questioning my direction in life and the decisions I was making. I had to receive a big jolt to gain this insight. I am very grateful for it.
Thinking about my Grandma again, I would have loved to have asked her more about her dreams of travelling and what stopped her from going? Did she ever think about going alone or was she waiting for someone to offer to go with her? As I approach closer to slow travelling around the world, I think my Grandma will regularly be in my thoughts as I explore.