You’re Gonna Regret It: On Living Your Life Like It’s Someone Else’s Deathbed Reflection
Photo by Nic Y-C on Unsplash

The benches in Central Park are really something.

If you’ve never been to New York City, a primer on one of the city’s most iconically personal touches: every park in NYC has what seem like countless benches swirling through it. In the middle of each bench is a plaque not much bigger than a credit card with whatever the person who purchased the plaque wants to say on it.

Some plaques feel a little cringe given the intimate nature of a bench. Names of department stores or law firms, with zero note or context, pop up every now and again feeling like some kind of advertisement amidst its benchmates. But the money goes toward the parks department so it’s a forgiveable cringe. You can make the bench note say whatever you want it to say, and the bench notes aren’t cheap, so if you want to use a bench like ad space, then you do you.

However, those no-note-just-brand-name benches are a stark contrast to the majority of the benches peppered through the parks: notes to, from, and in memory of loved ones.

From the proposal bench in Riverside Park (I really hope Emily said yes…) to the whole lane of family benches at the West 85th Street entrance (maybe it was a gift from a generous grandparent to their grandchildern?) to Garry Marshall’s bench by the baseball fields (feels v A League of The Own) to the acknowledgements of past sitters (literally, “John Sat Here.”) to the directives given to future sitters (“Go out and live your lives, then bring them back here to me. You talk so I can listen!”), I could spend hours on end on days on end just strolling and reading each plaque. They’re like a really big, really spread-out yearbook of the entire city: who’s who and who-has-been.

regret essay and photo of a bird on a bench in central park
Or this one, with just initials and “1987.” (Photo: Blake Griffin)


I forget my headphones on today’s walk with Frankie. Truthfully, I don’t forget them, it’s just that as I walk out the door, I figure she and I will walk Jeremy to the subway station, grab a coffee, then head home. I only grab my headphones if we’re taking a substantial walk. I usually use our long walks as an opportunity to catch up on my favorite podcasts, or, more recently, listen to Cowboy Carter for the billionth time. It would be a waste of time to take a longer walk this morning when we can take one later in the day after things have been accomplished, I tell myself. I’ll listen then. A reward, of sorts, for all that needs to be done and can’t be missed.

But Frankie has other plans. New York does too. I mean, is it physically possible to walk by a park filled with blooming trees on one of the first truly Warm And Sunny Spring Days and NOT pop in for a peek? The answer is no.

And so my normal long walk with headphones-in ends up being a musicless, podcast-less walk with just us gals. The honking horns are our beat drops and the birds talk to each other loudly. Same same but different.

Entering the park, my eyes gravitate toward the benches. With no other voices in my ears, these plaques feel like the words to focus on. I read each one.

A proposal. A dedication.

And, next to Bloomingdale’s Department Store, Beatrice Firstman.

I don’t know. There’s just something about Beatrice’s bench.

Witty, caring, inquisitive people-watcher, lover of life.

It strikes me and sticks to me.

My first thought is of my own witty, caring, inquisitive people-watcher and lover of life, Jeremy. My second thought is myself.

I see myself in these words…but I wonder if that’s how someone would describe me too.

Benches are funny. Not ha-ha funny (although some are that, too), but hmmmm / huh funny. A message, a moment, a memorial of a whole entire freaking life boiled down to a 2.75 x 5.5 inch plaque. As many words as can fit, which seem like both too many and an amount that could never be enough. There’s something so poetic about it and deeply bittersweet.

I’m guessing that’s why some just state plainly, John Sat Here.

It’s sometimes easier to state the obvious, however impersonal, than face the emotions around what might have actually been there all along.

I wonder about John. Was he witting, caring, and an inquisitive people-watching lover of life too?

Did he make himself known?

It’s sometimes easier to state the obvious than face the emotions around what might have actually been there all along.

Frankie looks up at me like “can’t we go sit on the grass? I bet Beatrice would have loved it…” So we say goodbye to Bea (I wonder if anyone called her Bea) and head up the grassy hill behind the benches.

It’s sunnier than I expected and my jacket-sweatshirt-hot-coffee combo is starting to make me feel sticky. I see a rock cluster underneath a tree at the top of the hill and Frankie runs to it knowing we’re about to park there. She’s like the mountain goat of the Upper West Side. Couldn’t give two shits about a tricked-out dog run, but give her a boulder by Sheep’s Meadow and she’ll leap to the top like it’s her own personal pride rock.

I scale the teeny-tiny urban mountain, place my coffee cup down, and let Frankie’s leash fall as she gnaws on some grass tufts (no she doesn’t have stomach issues, after multiple hundreds’ of dollars’ worth of testing when she was younger our vet came back with the diagnosis of “some dogs just really like the taste of dirt.” cool cool). I take off my jacket and sit down on the rock, looking south over the lower half of Central Park and the NYC skyline below.

I think of Beatrice, inquisitive people-watcher and lover of life.

I see a man taking photos of his blissfully exhausted black lab.

A woman walking a baby in a stoller.

Runners along the loop.

Frankie licks her lips as she gulps down her last hunk of grass and sits next to me, just watching the world.

A word comes to mind: regret.


I’ve always considered REGRET one of the most useless emotions out there, but now I’m not so sure. Growing up, regret felt like the “lonely old person in the dark house across the street” characters I’d read about as a bookwormish kid who couldn’t get enough of The Boxcar Children and The Baby-Sitters Club1. Lives redirected by a stream of decisions, or non-decisions, rendering the person heartbreakingly mysterious. This person, often times, was portrayed with no kids.

If you’re someone who is of a certain pre-45-ish age, NOT a parent, and are either decidedly child-free or on the fence about this massive life decision, I’ll bet good money on the fact that you’re familiar with the regret conversation. “You’ll regret it when you’re old” being the main thesis statement of that convo.

This week on the WANTcast, I had the immense pleasure of talking to Ruby Warrington, author of WOMEN WITHOUT KIDS. I’ve finished her book, read pretty much every article written about Ruby and WWK, and not only interviewed her for the podcast but spent multiple hours editing it into the final product you can hear wherever you listen to your favorite pods (plug!).

STILL, when the episode aired on Tuesday morning, I ended up listening not once not twice but THRICE that very same day.

One part in particular about regret kept jumping out at me. We spoke about in terms of having or not having children, but this quote from Ruby can also be applied way more widely:

I think this comes back down to, in terms of regret: rather than thinking, what will I regret in my seventies, in my eighties — if I even live that long, right? — what will I regret not doing this year? What will I regret not focusing on in my life today? What conversation will I regret not having with my partner? What will I regret not seeing in the world? And try to address those small potential regrets as they arise, rather than sort of future-tripping into “what are my elder years going to be?” The number one deathbed regret is around not living a life that was true to me; living a life that people wanted FOR me. And I think this is one of those areas where what other people want for us can be very, very powerful and really cloud our own true feelings about the subject.

As I sit on this rock with my dog staring out at the world in front of her while I do the same, eyeing the birds hopping and sqwacking and gathering twigs for their nests, I think about the people around me. I think about the people time zones away. I think about Beatrice. I think about John Who Sat Here. I think about everyone.

I think about how many people have yearned for a moment like I’m having now, the kind of moment I have monthly if not weekly and sometimes daily.

How many people wish they would have sat and taken a pause to notice the world.

How many people make choices because they were once told that they were the right ones to make, or that those choices were the ones they “should” want.

How many people settle for good-enough jobs, or friends, or partners, or homes, or cities, or existences, because it’s easier than choice, or is just what’s expected of them.

How many people get to the end of their lives and ARE filled with deep regret — and around WHAT.

It all went by so fast. I never took the time to just notice. I didn’t feel like I could.

Or more succinctly, as Bronnie Ware says and Ruby referenced:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.


Things pass us by. There are big choices to make in life, but there are small ones too. And what many of us don’t realize is that the small choices ARE our story. Each small choice is like a drop of ink pushed around on a page to resemble a letter in a word in a sentence in a chapter in our memoir.

Or maybe *you* don’t fail to realize. Maybe you’re like *I* am sometimes, and maybe you just…forget. You realized it some time ago, but it rarely seems to be top of mind. Sometimes it’s easier to forget than deal with what it would mean to remember.

The small choices ARE our story.

I call myself a Professional Noticer: I notice the way the blade of grass curls in on itself before it grows tall and the difference in a bird’s tone when it’s looking for food or calling out danger. I’ll never forget walking with Jeremy one spring a few years ago, showing him the irridescent details and yellow flecks on a micro-flower and exclaiming “This is why I never need to drop acid!!!!!” (he thought this conclusion was odd yet accurate, also now I’m wondering if anyone even says “drop acid” anymore?). I bet Beatrice was a Professional Noticer, too. No one is memorialized as “an inquisitive people-watcher” unless it was REALLY a part of their personality, right?

But my noticing doesn’t stop at what I can see, it picks up on what I don’t. The gaps are sometimes the noticing that shakes me the most.

Because when I hear people talk about regret, what I really hear is: “There was a life I wanted to live in the moment, and I didn’t.”

Regret is so subjective and personality-specific that I find it off-putting to proclaim to someone what they will or won’t regret. Maybe there’s an exception to that rule if you’ve really got ALL of the information you can from the other person (can you really though?), you’re a therapist (although I don’t think I know of any therapist who would outright say to a patient that their patient will regret something?), or are directly asked for your mentorship (maybe the only instance?).

But you’re not that other person, and tbh, THEY’RE not even that future version of themselves yet.

So rarely do we know how our own stories will unfold, let alone someone else’s.


Here are my regrets:

  • I regret not going to a concert (that would have been pretty amazing) back in 2008 because I wanted the sleep instead of the late night out.
  • I regret not figuring out how to save a slice of our wedding cake to ship to NYC from Los Angeles and eat one year later.

So yeah, I have some regrets. Concerts and cakes.

But big course-of-life-altering regrets? I don’t have any right now, or at least I don’t think I do. And I sincerely hope I won’t in the future. I mean, I might, but who’s to say? I sure can’t.

What I CAN do now is pay attention to the micro-moments and build the habits I want to have before I need them.

I regret not going to the concert and regret not saving the cake but I learned my lessons there. I don’t use tiredness or inconvenience as my sole reasons for not doing something anymore unless I am REALLY tired and it’s REALLY inconvenient.

My goal now is to do my best at consistently asking myself what Ruby spoke to — “what would I regret doing or not doing today” — so that when a larger decision comes along I’m primed to pick the choice that aligns with my fullest truest self.

My goal now is to intentionally notice the joy in the micro-moments so I can more readily choose joy in the bigger ones.

My joy doesn’t look like your joy, and your joy doesn’t look like anyone else’s either. But this whole wide world we live in is so loud in proclaiming what is and isn’t the life we’re supposed to live, that it can be really hard to even identify what we desire. Yes, I believe we’re born with a deeper knowing of who we are and what we want — but without conscious practice of noticing that knowing and acting upon it, it’s way easier to get sucked into the mishmosh of opinions around you.

Our lives are a blink. A BLINK. I am obsessed with the Cosmic Calendar, a method used to visualize the chronology of the universe. The idea of “life being a blink” isn’t just a poetic turn of phrase. On the cosmic calendar, the average lifespan is literally as long as a blink.

In the end of our blink of a life, I highly doubt any of us are hung up on what someone else did or didn’t do.

*Yet so many of us live our lives like they’re someone else’s deathbed reflection.*

Just like I walked outside without my headphones and came home with this entire essay completely formulated, sometimes you’ve got to get other people’s voices out of your head in order to clearly hear your own.

Sometimes you’ve got to get other people’s voices out of your head in order to clearly hear your own.


So do I still think regret is a useless emotion? Nah. I think it’s both avoidable and unavoidable. There will always be an either/or. The nature of CHOICE requires it. Some choices you’ll choose, and some you’ll respect and release. The idea of regret can be extremely useful, because it can be a compass toward the choices we make in the moment to be exactly who we are (or not). Which will you regret more: doing what is easy, or what is right? Choosing joy, or choosing the “should”? Being exactly who you are, or being who you think others want you to be?

The people who are fearless enough to move our society forward are the ones who are, as Oprah once said, full of themselves. Full of their own Selves. So full they are overflowing. So full they have so much to offer and so much to give.

I highly doubt that level of “fullness” comes from living your life from someone else’s vantage point.

It’s getting later and as the morning wears on I realize that I would, in fact, like to go home. I’d like to feed Frankie her breakfast, go for a run, and write this essay I’m writing to you right now. I haven’t picked up my phone other than to take cute photos of my mountain goat pup because I don’t want to cloud my thoughts with the words of others. But I know I probably should check my phone at some point, so, home it must be.

Frankie sits at the edge of the grass and the path out of the park, like a boulder, immovable. She looks wistful, which I first think is just pollen getting in her eyes because #allergyszn2, but then I see her looking past the path and onto the next lawn over.

I follow her gaze and see a huge dog twice her size and probably twice her age given the grey around his muzzle. The dog is upside down and wriggling in the grass, tongue-out and making the happy grunts of having found something particularly smelly to roll in.

No way Frankie, I think. Her bath last week took a full 20 minutes just to get the bits of twigs and leaves out of her dense coat. We’ve had a lovely walk and park-sit and life contemplation. It’s good enough for this morning.

And then I looked at that dog and at my own. Maybe she didn’t want to roll, or maybe she did. Maybe she just wanted to feel that free.

Which would I regret more: having to clean her (and the subsequent result of her zoomies around the apartment), or looking at her later in the day wishing we’d fully leaned into our moment in the sun?

And I thought of what Ruby said, and about that Mary Oliver quote about how when joy presents itself, to lean in. Joy is not made to be a crumb. If you have the choice between good enough or whatever is beyond that, choose the beyond.

“Okay Frankie.” A permission slip directed at her but really to myself. We cross the path, and I unclip her leash. I give her the verbal cue I always give when taking her off-leash — “you’re freeeee!” She gives a few hops and her eyes twinkle — I swear they do, and she smiles — I swear she does. I pick up a stick and throw it.

And for the first time this morning, her stride fully opens up as she full-body leaps down the lawn. She bounces like a bunny and grabs the stick and runs back to my side to drop it and go again. A big toothy grin.

I see a man in the distance photographing birds with a big long lens. An older couple on a bench underneath the willow trees. A kid throwing a frisbee the size of their torso. A woman calling after her Bernadoodle named Maurice who just wants to sit in the flower bed and look up at the trees.

I think about the fact that I get to come here and do this. I think about Beatrice’s bench and how moved I am by the fact that whoever wrote its dedication defined her not by what she did but who she was. I think about being seen that clearly by someone else, and what it really takes.

I throw the stick again and notice that Frankie makes noises that aren’t quite barks and aren’t quite growls. They’re the sounds she makes when she’s fully in the moment. She’s having so much fun.

I laugh and think, I almost missed this.


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