What I Learned About Regret From My Grandma, the Pathological Liar
A life of lies can lead to a death full of regrets. I don't want that for myself.
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Grandma Shirley, my father's mother, died riddled with cancer and regrets. It was sad and horrible in the way cancer, and the majority of deaths, tend to be. I found it particularly upsetting though because, up until that moment, I’d always thought she'd been fiercely and eccentrically happy. One of those rare people who forge their own weird and selfish and contented path—the kind that makes no sense to anyone else. Instead, I realised what I'd romanticised as individuality was likely just fear and anxiety. She had, I found, essentially lied about her own happiness.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. One of the things I loved most about her was how she twisted, modified, and pruned all that happened to her. For years, she would tell us proudly about our relative "Uncle Hercules" who had been made the mayor of his town at the age of 20, only to tragically die of glandular fever at just 25.
Only after grandma's death did we discover "Hercules" was actually Hector—he’d never been mayor, just a civil clerk. And he was very much alive. To me, this manipulation of facts seemed utterly random and pointless.
But today a lot of popular psychology celebrates people like Grandma Shirley—revolving around the vindication of your own choices. Want to spend a week in your room watching Netflix? That's fine. Want to skip Christmas with your family because it's too windy? Grandma Shirley once did. She was fiercely independent and seemed to love her own company. She divorced my grandfather in her 30s and never remarried, distinguishing her from most women of her generation.
Her life didn’t make much sense to people—it mostly involved daytime TV and writing down facts in notebooks kept under her bed. She lived in a little studio apartment that smelled of cigarettes and musk lollies. She baldly claimed that she hadn’t smoked in 40 years while reeking of smoke.
And during the week that she died, I left a music festival after just one day, after realising that I fucking hate music festivals with all my heart. I skirted the truth with my friends, telling them I had to go because my grandma had just died. At that point, this was untrue. But using my grandma as both a convenient lie and a justification for doing what I wanted (read: not dealing with hippies, tents, or lukewarm gin) may just have been the perfect tribute to her.
Later in her life, Shirley started rewriting her own history. She talked about my grandfather as if he’d been the most wonderful husband in the world; as if they’d remained married right up until his death. On her deathbed, in between long periods of unconsciousness, she was also fixated on all the things she hadn’t done. Her regrets were much like her lies—there were lots of them, with little to connect them. She regretted not travelling, not pursuing her career, not learning more. She regretted and regretted and regretted.
I understand that dying on a hospice bed in pain isn’t exactly conducive to positive recollections about her life, but it shook me. It appeared that instead of living the life she had wanted, she had instead been lying to herself to coat the regret.
I’ve started wondering if I’m doing the same in my own life. Things that have seemed too big, too hard, have suddenly become things I'm just not "interested in." I find airports extremely stressful, so I find reasons not to travel. And I've never admitted to it—rather, I've told myself my choice to stay home was the empowering option. Even now, I realise I’ve been lying about not driving; telling people it's environmentally criminal to own a car in the city. But, actually, I just really hate driving.
And yet, even being aware of the fact that you lie to yourself isn’t a surefire guarantee that you’ll stop. I’ve found that the person most susceptible to my own bullshit is myself. But my all new philosophy is to die with as few regrets as possible, so I guess it's time to try to stop.
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