I had a pretty significant health scare back in the spring. It was to the point that they thought I may have had less than 5 years left. I remember seeing the doctor’s number on my phone about 20 minutes before I had to give a huge group presentation at Hopkins. I picked up and I knew he was going to give me bad news. They had drawn what seemed like gallons of blood from my protesting arms.

Sure enough, he broke it to me as gently as he could. He had never seen such profoundly bad results. So bad in fact that he wanted some more tests to exclude the possibility of “artifacts” contaminating the samples. I agreed to come in the next morning and ended our conversation with the fake bravado of someone I am still kind of trying to become.

After a sputter of hysterical tears, a strange thing happened. A list appeared in my head. Like, a yellow legal pad with my own handwriting scribbled on it.

That night, walking back from my parking garage, I quite literally stumbled onto the body of a homeless man who had died a few blocks from my place. As a believer in signs, I took it as an importunate message from the universe. The list was still right there, between my eyebrows and hairline, just under the skin-probably visible if you took the care to have a close look. I went online and searched “swing dance” “Baltimore”. It was 7:15. The class began at 8. I got there at 7:58, and I danced my face off.

There will be another blog about Charm City Swing, and how much I love it and the people who run it. For now, just know that dancing was on the list, and they helped me check it off. As it turns out, the samples were contaminated. I’m fine. Now that I’m dying of the more likely ailment of being alive and will probably overstay my welcome on this planet (as is my custom), I still think back to that list.

I came across a different kind of list on Twitter, courtesy of @GuyKawasaki’s news/human interest aggregator, Alltop. These are the 5 most commonly reported regrets of people who are on their deathbeds.


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

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.


Living a life designed to avoid these regrets is dangerous. You end up dancing a lot and showing perhaps a little too much fondness, a little too soon. You completely fail to be cool, and get in the habit of looking silly while taking time to actually smell the roses.

In that horrifying moment when I was certain I was terminally ill, there was another list: the things I would not be able to do with only 5 years left. Now that those things are at least a possibility,  I think it’s only right to continue on in the spirit of feeling improbably lucky to be alive, so that when I’m actually on my deathbed, I might search for regrets and come up with nothing. Sure, I’ll probably fail, but as is the theme of this blog (and my life), it’s the spirit of the gesture that contains all of the beauty.


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9 Responses

  1. Beautiful! In my book, the lab results were both of your creation; the second because you made the choice to live and you went to that dance class right then and there. Bravo! Does it work for everyone? no – it’s not a technique – it was the form, the dance class, the test results, and the new forms were born of an essence of you, your resonance. What a beautiful composition! Now I’m off go to listen to you playing cello.

  2. Here’s another who learned of the lab fiasco after you got the good news. Of course I get good news every time you call and tell me about both the good and bad, but that’s what comes with the territory of being your Mom and I thank God every day that you are my “dancing queen”:<)

  3. Wow… scares that can make people think rash things (like drop out of Hopkins) and yet, in the scheme of things – are they really that rash?

    Thanks for the honest, open post about a terrifying time in your life and giving us a glimpse at what really matters – Swing Dancing!

    I can’t say I’ve always lived my life as if there was only 5 years left, but I can say I have few regrets about the paths I have taken. Perhaps I’m fortunate in this, or maybe I just lucked on to the right woman at the right time (I was 17 when we met and 18 when we married).

    We had children early and now, 31 years later – off galavanting around the world, in other words landed in LA without jobs and no real prospects and little money to speak of – but great friends and earnest intent. We may not land on our feet, but we’re together. Rather like your Swing Dancing, our relationship is the one thing that should all else fail, we never want to regret having spent too little time together.

    I’ve not learned to swing dance yet… but maybe it should be on my list. Certainly drink more champagne is!!!



  4. Number one seems very resonant at the moment. It’s true, life doesn’t always work out if you follow the kind of list that you’d created in that moment of clarity; But I’d rather get to the end of my life and regret the things I had tried, than the things I hadn’t. I think that it’s one of the intrinsic flaws in (any) society, that it takes something intense to bring about this philosophy and provide the impulse to remember that life is best when you live it.

    And even though I’m sat in an office, listening to prissy piano hold music for a conference call – I can read this, look out of the window at the clouds blowing past and the trees stirring, and remember that tonight I can go to orchestra and play my ass off.

  5. Wonderful post.

    I remember reading that the dying words of artist Joseph Cornell were “I wish I had not been so reserved”.
    Those really resonated with me, and I took a long hard look at what I wanted to be able to read of my life as I looked back.
    Never learning to play the cello was a big one, so at 46, I rented an instrument, found a wonderfully supportive teacher, and started my lessons.

    It makes me happy every time I sit down to play. Will I ever be much good? Not even the point, really. I’ll still end up better than if I’d never tried, and in the process I can give my daughters the kind of message that life is to be lived to the fullest and you’re never too old to try something new!

    As I face my own health crisis, I have a feeling that playing cello is one of the things from which I will draw a great deal of comfort and peace.

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