I visited the river after the flood. How do you like your new pathways? I asked. To the south, a whole new flow had rutted out the valley floor, laying bare roots and root systems, hidden boulders, snake dens.
I don’t like it, the river said. It hurts, it feels awkward. I’m not used to flowing that way.
I’m in a rut, I said. I want a new path.
You think you do, said the river. But what opens up isn’t always what you had in mind.
It’s just — I began.
Uh oh, the river said.
For a long time, when I thought about, you know, lying on my deathbed, looking back over my life — What would I wish I’d done? What would I regret? — I thought I was supposed to do as much as possible. I thought, I don’t want to regret opportunities not maximized, opportunities not taken. You know?
But now I’m getting older, and my hair is graying faster and faster. It’s like someone turned up the speed on an old record player, making the voice reedy and cartoony, except that voice is the speed with which my hair is turning gray, and the wrinkles settle in and spread, and the gloss drains out of my skin, which is now also kind of gray. And I suddenly feel I’ve been thinking about it all wrong.
Wrong how? the river asked politely. How nice, that she was still listening.
I spent so much energy worrying whether every moment was as perfect as it could be. Was I doing the best possible thing I could at the moment? Was I as healthy as I could possibly be? Did I make the best possible choices with the resources and options I had?
And then I got sick.
Oh! the river gasped.
No, not like that, I said. Just regular sick. I was in bed for a few days, like with a flu or a sinus infection.
Oh! the river said. Still, I know what you mean.
Yeah. It just suspends you from all the usual stuff, forces you to suspend yourself. Puts you at a distance.
And I thought, I don’t think that’s right.
That you were sick? the river asked. She really was a good listener.
No. My thinking. About my deathbed.
Do you think about your deathbed often? she wondered out loud.
Yeah, a lot I guess. Why, is that not normal?
It’s a type, she said, in a voice that sounded like a shrug.
Fair enough. Anyway, it hit me kind of all of a sudden that my deathbed thoughts weren’t going to be like, ‘Oh, I never took that trip to Iceland,’ or ‘I wish I’d gone after it and gone to law school after all.’
No? said the river. I always thought law school would be interesting. Didn’t want to be a lawyer, though.
Yeah, same, I agreed. But [I could tell by the more frequent interruptions that I was reaching the quota for talking about myself] here’s the thing: I think when I look back, if there’s something I’ll wish I did differently, it’ll be that I spent less time worrying about whether I got it right. That in those times when things were, on balance, good, fine, just regular — I didn’t enjoy it. Instead of being like, Did I eat too much sugar today? Should I have signed the kids up for dance? Why didn’t I clean the bathroom? and so on and so forth.
The river released a big sigh.
What? I asked. I went on too long about myself. Sorry. ‘Blah, blah, blah.’
No, it’s not that, she said. It’s … that’s right. What you said is right. So much of it matters so little.
A long twig bobbed by, spotted with pale green lichen, and caught in a cluster of rocks jutting out from the water. It burbled there, shimmying around for two, three, four moments before gathering enough force behind it to push through.
The river moved forward and stayed still at the same time. She was quiet now, though I could hear her breathing.
I set off, over the path of long brown pine needles, my steps like a heartbeat that pumped river water through my veins to their rhythm: “Re-joice, re-joice, re-joice.”