My father died on the day after my 23rd birthday. Now, almost 25 years later, I often wonder what things would have been like – what I would have been like – had he survived. These thoughts find a sharper focus now because, when my father was my age, he had less than three years to live; less than three years between him and his first and fatal heart attack.
So, what would I do if I were 22 again? For one thing, I would have told my father to get his blood pressure checked, lay off the fatty foods, and do some exercise once in a while – taking care to emphasize to him that neither walking to the pub each night, nor playing snooker, count as exercise.
While doing any one of these things may well have prolonged his life beyond his 50 years, I at least know I need to pay attention to them in order to avoid a similar fate. Despite a rigorous exercise regime that often borders on the extreme – or maybe because it does – the blood pressure medicine that many years ago my doctor said would be an inevitable part of my future has finally been prescribed. I wish it hadn’t taken my father’s death to highlight the risk.
I remember one of my last conversations with my father as if it were yesterday. I remember it because it has dictated the course of my life ever since.
I had just informed my parents that I was leaving home to live with a work colleague in his north London flat. To a family that has always (and I mean always in a Domesday Book sense) lived in the same old, dreary north Kent town, London seemed like a different world.
In retrospect, it was this venture into a new, independent phase of my life, this striking out on my own, which probably made my father focus on his own frustrations. With words that, after his death a few weeks later, initially haunted, but ultimately inspired, he said, “Please make sure that you don’t ever get stuck in a routine. Don’t do things because you’ve always done them in this way, on this day, at this time. Have the courage to do something different, something unexpected”. I was 22 years old.
The conversation turned to my father’s hopes for his own life, now that his first-born son was on the move. He talked of his desire to add more variety, to see more places, to spend more time with his wife. He was more animated and optimistic than I had ever seen him before, which made the infinite sadness of his death almost unbearable.
But there was one word – whether said or implied – that I took from the whole conversation: regret. Regret for a life not led; regret for opportunities not grasped; regret for things not experienced.
As my grief began to fade in the months following his death, and with my initial quest for independence abandoned, the word continued to stalk me. I promised myself that I was not going to let regret skulk in the shadows of my life, awaiting its moment to pounce. When I reached the age of 50, I was not going to look back and say, “I wish I’d done that”.
I threw myself in front of whatever opportunities came my way, however dubious the invitation. I soon found myself bungee jumping off of bridges in New Zealand, skydiving, sleeping on hostel roofs in Jerusalem, roaming the Jordanian desert – and meeting as wide a variety of people as I could have possibly imagined. I realized that there was, indeed, a world elsewhere – and I couldn’t get enough of it.
In 1995, with my not-yet-sated wanderlust having made me gloriously impecunious, I was offered (and, of course, blindly accepted) a job in Moscow. The stories of my three years in the Russian capital could fill a book or two, but the chaos of the city, its energy, the petty bureaucracy and occasional police beatings gave me a fresh perspective on life – and on the type of people I would want to be part of mine. It wasn’t so much that I reinvented myself in Moscow; it’s that I forgot who I was before.
I met my wife (a Russian area studies student from Maryland) in Moscow. We married in 1999, the same year we moved to Zurich. Our daughter was born there and was just shy of her third birthday when we moved to New York. Two years later, and having had our fill of harsh winters and rented accommodations, Charlotte, North Carolina became our home. We’ve been there ever since.
And none of this would have happened had my father awoken, as normal, on August 3rd 1989. His death triggered a chain of events that placed me where I am today. I have a gorgeous, intelligent wife and a daughter of whom I couldn’t be more proud. I’ve lived in four countries and visited over 70 others – and still don’t think either count is high enough. I’m a citizen of a country my father never visited.
Of course, we cannot know what would have happened had we pursued a different course, whether of our own volition or as a victim of circumstance; whether because of a decision as trivial as opting to take an alternative road home or a circumstance as tragic as the premature death of a family member.
But we all have those pivotal moments – sometimes more than one – which divide our lives into “before and after” segments on a timeline. And, more often than not, our pivotal moments are represented by things over which we had no control, i.e. they happened to us; we didn’t make them happen.
Whether you’re 22 or 52, it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you choose to react that makes the difference. Our reaction defines us. You can choose to get angry, you can wallow in self-pity, or you can resolve to see the event as a catalyst for action that, if you’re honest with yourself, you should have taken long ago.
As my 50th birthday draws ever closer, I already know I’ll be able to look back with very few regrets about things not yet achieved, and with a significant amount of pride in those that were. And I’m healthy enough to have confidence in my ability to make some significant inroads into the “not yet achieved” list.
If I were 22 again, I hope my father would have the same conversation with me; encouraging me to explore, take chances, have fun. I hope I would take his advice as seriously as I did the first time.
My last 25 years have contained more variety and been more fulfilling than, as a naïve 22 year old, I even knew to dream of; it would have been selfish to expect more. But I occasionally wonder what would have happened had I ended that conversation with my father with the question, “When was the last time you went to the doctor’s for a check-up?” If I had said that the first time, maybe we would be spending today comparing notes.
25th May 2014