Robert Barsanti wishes he had eaten more cake, kissed more women, and seen Sarah Vaughn when he had the chance.
I bottomed out on 495. I was staring a down the barrel of a divorce and was ducking for cover and begging for mercy. I had finished my first week of work at a new faraway school and was returning home in 105 degree heat on Labor Day. And I needed to make a boat.
So, my hopes rode on my little car. It had taken all the challenges like a trooper; it had motored successfully through the Hartford traffic on 84, negotiated with the trucks and the troopers on the Mass Pike, and then, darted into the mix on 495. When the engine died. Steam, a beep, and I was easing over into the breakdown lane.
I regret I didn’t change the oil more often.
Had I taken care of the most basic maintenance problem, the Toyota would have happily putt-putted its way to Hyannis and through the next 100,000 miles of driving with an intact head-gasket and a fuller wallet. However, I still would have been shot down by divorce, got frustrated at the new school, and missed the boat.
I would like to say that I have lived a life without regret, but that would be childish. By the time I finish this cold beverage, I can name twenty people I should have bought a dinner for. I can think of another dozen mistakes that cost me money, friends, or joint rotation. Vonnegut was right: “Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, ‘It might have been.’”
Most of our regrets, however, reflect weaknesses in our character. Like Tommy the Tapeworm, we take this character with us everywhere. I have a disastrous habit of forgetting basic steps that would save me further pain. So, just as I burned out an engine, I have bounced checks, forgotten phone numbers, and eaten too many cheese fries. One failed decision about the car didn’t kill the engine just as one extra donut didn’t break my belt. The forgetful tide of my character brought the RAV4, the waistline and a hundred other faults up onto the beach. Were I a child, I would expect my beach to be spotless and my character to be perfect. The cold reality of adulthood freezes that dream to the curb, just under the Taco Bell bag and next to the empty wine box.
Further, regret has a certain egotism to it. I regret the oil change I never got, but I don’t appreciate how far that car went without the oil change. I don’t think of all of those times when the fates blessed me beyond my desserts. How many times had I cheated injury on ski slopes or highways? How many times had the lights changed just in time? How many times had the state trooper issued me a warning and not a summons?
When viewed from the right perspective, my life has been a cascade of blessings. I was born at the right time. I went to the right school. I met the right woman.
You become an adult when you realize that the most important things come to you unbidden. Fate chooses your parents, a bored admissions officer chooses your college, and the women choose you for a reason deeper than words and wider than thought. The wise man lets the river flow. If you have to ask yourself whether you should get married or should take this job, you shouldn’t. For the most important things in your life, asking the question answers it. Children come when they want to. Death drops in unannounced. Opportunities come with the predictability of a curve ball on a hot night. If it all works out, you sit in an easy chair with a beer in your right hand, another’s hand in your left one, and have that Talking Heads epiphany: “Well, how did I get here?”
The true adult decisions we make, the ones that require lists, discussion and a retainer, are the ones that don’t matter so much in the long run. (If you need to decide whether to buy Pampers or MegaMillions tickets, you’re not an adult.) Most of the ugly decisions are in “Win-Win” situations. If you can win with either choice, you can lose with either as well. Should I go to Harvard or Michigan, should I work for IBM or Whole Foods, should I use paper or plastic? In the end, the consequences of those decisions will wash out. Robert Frost wrote of two roads in a yellow wood and most remember that the speaker chose the “Road Less Travelled By” as the title suggests. But the poem says over and over in the first three stanzas that the roads “equally lay.” Only later, “ages and ages hence” do we claim that we took the one less travelled by and that it made all the difference. Our character will matter more than the “win-win” choices we make.
Regret acknowledges the sweeping tide of time and the finality of death. Most of the people who deserved a dinner from me can’t taste the pan-roasted lobster. I can’t put the oil in the car. Time has passed and the people have died.
I never saw Sarah Vaughn. I regret skipping her concert. In 1984, she played at Saratoga and I, as a college jazz radio DJ, got comped free tickets. The girlfriend wanted to go, the car was ready, I knew her catalogue, and I hesitated. Hoon, who had all of the European recordings of the great and near great, urged me on; “Sooner or later, she’ll be dead.” But I didn’t and the Divine One died six years later.
The sins I regret the most are the sins I never committed. I could have seen Sarah Vaughn, for free, but I didn’t. I have heard the chimes at midnight, but I could have done much more with my youth. I wish I had kissed more women, lost more golf balls, and eaten more cake.
I believed there would always be cake. I didn’t realize, at the time, how precious the moment was. My mother would die, a friend would move away, and the girl would dump me and they would all be beyond thanks. Time dumps all things in a can for Death to take away. Regret comes when you think off all of the things that are gone forever in that truck.
—Photo credit: TenSafeFrogs/Flickr