I Kid Me Not
They say in the old age homes, when surveyed about their life’s regrets, the residents point to the things they didn’t do, not the things they did.
And one choice — to not do something — haunts my life like a silent echo.
It began when my first marriage suffered through five miscarriages, and their cumulative impact had me telling my wife I needed to take a break before trying to conceive again. She agreed, and we instead started to look into adoption. I remember those long, crowded adoption meetings, where the social worker would walk us through the labyrinth-like procedure.
But when the call finally came, one fateful day in ’92, “There’s a baby due up in Westchester, if you want it!” we looked at each other and shook our heads. The baby would soon come into this world, but our marriage was on its way out.
Since then I’ve often wondered – what if she had been able to carry our child to term? What a hard childhood he or she would have had!
During those eight years of dating that followed, if I had made becoming a father a priority, I would have succeeded, even if it would have meant following in my brother’s footsteps and marrying a single mom. But I didn’t do it. Why? I can kick myself about it if I want, but when I take an honest look, I realize No: I now wanted my life to be for me. Developing, improving, pleasing and taking care of myself had become my priority. It might seem self-centered, but having children would have taken me off this path.
Fast forward to today, I sometimes find myself regretting this choice. Especially those times I peer deep into the Meaning File in my psyche and it’s empty.
This is because I lack progeny to pour myself into. So when I die, too much of me will die with me. When I’m gone, they’ll be no one of my blood to carry on. It seems wrong, somehow, an affront to the natural cycle of life, to not give back all I’ve received. Especially when I consider how much I got from my parents, especially my dad, who to this day continues to inform and inspire me, though he’s almost 20 years gone.
And when you die childless, it’s like a tree falling in the existential forest, making not a sound.
So I write.
And do therapy.
And love. Janis had these lines she added to her cover of “Cry Baby”. During a break in the song — speaking, not singing — she says:
You can go all around the world, trying to find something to do with your life babe, When you only gotta do one thing well to make it in this world. All you ever gotta do, is be a good man, one time, to one woman, and that’ll be the end of the road, babe.
Well, I can say with assurance that when I found the right woman, I gave her all I got. And if that’s not meaningful, then I don’t know what is.
But still, even still, there’s no son or daughter with whom to continue the circle of giving, the family legacy of living to give. So I feel compelled to spend and give and live it all away while I still can. This I believe will make my dying, whenever it comes, feel a bit less final.
And then there’s also the fact that children can provide a safety net to catch you as you age and become more vulnerable. And these days, ageing can be a long, slow decline. Having kids and grandchildren is probably the best kind of health insurance.
As I age, and slowly grow weaker and also more irritable and curmudgeonly, who will take care of me? Shelley I hope, as I will take care of her. But if (God forbid!) I lose her – what then? My brother has his own life, and my nephews have theirs. And it’s not like I have the money to attract a younger woman to take care of me either. I could seriously be SOL.
But tonight, in the midst of writing this, Shelley comes home late from seeing her son, who’s 30 and going through a major crisis. It’s clear that his pain goes right through her. And I think of some other people I’ve known the past few years and what they’ve endured watching their kids either fail to launch or totally fuck up or even reject them as parents. So the safety net children can provide can also helplessly ensnare a person in great anguish.
For all my regrets, and missed joys, my choice to be childless has also spared me from some of life’s pain.