Regrets Only

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If you could have yesterday back today, what would you do differently?

(A game to play)

A dear friend had a 59th birthday. She had decided it was the last party she would celebrate out loud. We were ten women, none young, in various degrees of preservation and youthfulness. After the cake blowout, which took three heavy breathers, we played a game called Regrets Only. Possibly you’d like to play. The women’s identities are concealed to protect their secrets, and this is how it went. Each talked about what they would have redone “yesterday,” what they regretted not doing at that time. So here it goes:

1. Veronica X. wished she had married her first heartthrob. At 21, her mother had broken up the relationship because he was Jewish – she was Catholic. Being a mama’s girl who went to confession every week, Veronica listened to her mother’s advice as well as her priest. Thirty-nine years later, with three grown children, she ran into the lost love of her life at the airport returning from babysitting her grandchildren. Her heart pounded at seeing him and she knew in a moment that she had made a mistake; it was as if they had talked and kissed just yesterday. He was delicious now – old and bald, a widower of many years. And he made her laugh. He made her cry over time so long ago. She rushed home late to her husband of 40 years, knowing she had never felt for him what she had felt for her old beau. She still can’t shake those dreams of her early romance. If only she could have another chance at it.

2. Linda C. never married. Never had kids. She discovered early but revealed lately that she preferred women to men. She regretted that she had never expressed her sexual preference when she was young. She had always been ashamed of her dreams and yearnings. Linda C. had lived a closeted life. Successful. She dressed in ultrafeminine clothes, bags and shoes. This fashionista drew tears from us when she disclosed that she had never fulfilled her fantasies. She felt that now at 60 it was just too late. We explained to our beautiful friend that it was never too late to come out.

3. Annie S. She hated her life. To do it over she would have had more kids. Her daughter and she had been ever so close, but early on she made the career choices that made additional childbearing impossible. As life would have it, her only child, her beautiful daughter, died at 32 of lymphoma. Annie S. was divorced as well. Depriving herself of a larger family, she was now totally alone. She spent days questioning her choice of career over family and nights mourning her precious daughter. We assured her the decisions that she had made in bygone times were the right ones, and all of us reflected on the promises lost by her beautiful daughter. We held hands and gave Annie S. assurance that we were her family now 24/7.

4. June R. All for her family. Now all moved away. She had not had a work career though the rest of us had. Graduating cum laude from a tough women’s college, she had worked for three years as a chemist and then devoted the rest of her life to rearing kids, baking, cooking and being a wife. Now, at 62, her kids were all gone, and not all that close (three boys), and in addition, she spent evenings alone while her husband, a poker and cigar aficionado, traveled widely to tournaments in which she had absolutely no interest. Her sons were independent and made only obligatory calls to her that were disturbing. She saw herself as an obligatory mother and an obligatory mother-in-law and, though a loving grandmother, her invitations always felt like obligations. A mother’s mother, she had not transitioned into motherlessness.

5. Ronnie Z. should have left her abusive husband years before. She knew he was unfaithful. He verbally criticized her looks, her cooking, her child-rearing skills, her weight, her makeup, her very self. But she kept it all to herself for fear of loneliness and for the sake of her kids. Never having a career, she felt economically tied to him and her home. Ironically, her husband was now terminally ill and she cared for him dutifully. She resented this caretaking since she felt he had never cared for her. These secrets crippled her and now she waited for his death. She needed his resources. She felt obligated to care for him in spite of the difficult years and secrets he had kept from her. She wished she had walked out on him decades ago.

6. Mary L., a single librarian, startled us when she told us she had just had surgery for stage-two ovarian cancer. Symptomless, it had been discovered in a routine gynecological visit. Scared of her chances for living a long life, she had decided to travel to China and India in the next months. Alone. Her survival was guarded. Her hair had begun to grow back soft and fuzzy. We all took turns caressing the fuzz. Mary L. was going to start living right away. She felt she had wasted her life in imagination, in books and in thinking that time would go on forever. She was now going to try adventure. She regretted that it had taken her so long to get going.

7. Agnes R. was 100 lbs. overweight. She hated her body and was annoyed that she had not conquered her eating disorder in her early 60s. She had been bulimic in college and thrown up to be thin. Very thin. Even after several rehabs, she had not been able to control her weight. She simply had landed on uncontrollable fat. She hated sex because she hated her body. She refused to look at her naked self in the mirror. Her image disgusted her. She never believed she was pretty. She had been through three husbands, and now lived with an older man who doted on her and called her his plump passion. She received little satisfaction from her daughters – two of whom chose their father during a heated divorce. She was on a smorgasbord of pills: antidepressants, sleep medications and mood stabilizers. Depressed, she came to the party simply to celebrate the hostess. We told her she had a beautiful face; she said she’d heard that too many times before. We told her she was a veritable Rubens. Agnes was the only one who did not eat any birthday cake.

8. Gretchen F. was a plastic surgery addict. Although we all admitted our true ages, Gretchen felt that the number could affect her career. She was a journalist. Tummy tucks, eyelifts, neck pull, cheek lifts, even knee lifts. Gretchen was beautiful in spite of her artificiality. She had thick, widely spaced eyelashes and a lipstick line that made her lips over-pucker (or was it silicone?). She discussed aging as if it were sinful. She had found a way to travel with a passport that altered her age. Her latest boyfriend was nine years younger. He was great horizontally and she was on hormones. We loved her for her inside and not for her façade, but that’s what mattered most to her and she wished she could be the real thing.

9. Johanna R. Simply happy. She felt lucky about all of her life. She enjoyed her family and, anyway, it was her party. She was still in her 50s (though barely), she said that sex with her husband of 30 years was stupendous (we groaned, as disbelievers). She had two Harvard-graduated perfect kids: one a doctor who lived nearby, the other getting a PhD in anthropology. She wasn’t afraid of aging; she said growing old was a gift. Her mother had died in a car accident at 42. We toasted her 59th; she said, blowing out the candles, that she would do it all again the same way. And then dramatically à la Piaf she belted, “Je regrette rien.” We all applauded.

And then came me. I told them I’d disguised them and wrote them up anonymously for wOw. I explained that my secrets could not be secrets because I was not anonymous. They said I was a coward, but I told them that they were veiled and I was out there. So there.

And what about you? If you could have yesterday back again, what, if anything, would you do differently? Would you play the game, Regrets Only?

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