Lately I have read several blogs and even a newspaper article in which writers think about their life’s regrets. In these posts, the writers look back on mistaken decisions, missed chances, unnecessary conflicts and poor financial choices. They think about the “what ifs” of life and wonder about what might have been.
Naturally, I’ve started to think about my own regrets and missed chances. At almost 56, there are a few things that I wish I had done differently. Mostly these are little things, with only financial ramifications. Mostly, I don’t truly regret them at all.
But there is one memory from years past that still haunts me sometimes, and does truly fill me with regret.
I think it was the summer of 1998. August, if I remember correctly, hot and humid. We had just set up camp on the beautiful Maryland island of Assateague. As a child, I had read and loved Margeurite Henry’s books about the wild pony, Misty, of nearby Chincoteague Island. I read them all over and over, and dreamed of one day walking on those beautiful beaches and seeing those wild ponies. Now as a mother of three young children, I was making that dream come true.
We had set up our little pop up trailer that afternoon in the brilliant sunlight of the campground. We arranged our shade tarp, got out the cooler and cook stove, tied a kite to our camper to fly in the unending ocean wind. The kids loved the gulls, the sea shells, the soft white sands, the row of dunes that stood between the campground and the incoming waves. We went swimming in the afternoon, then had dinner and headed in to sleep in the camper.
It was the most magical, beautiful night. The moon was full and the air was warm and sweet and tangy with the taste of the ocean. All day we had watched small bands of wild ponies trotting down the roads of the campground, crossing the dunes, cropping the salty grasses of the marsh. The kids had already chosen their favorites, and we looked forward to a week of getting to know them and of sharing the island with them.
The boys were only six and eight years old that summer, and after a day of sun and swimming, they fell asleep quickly. At twelve, Kate took a bit longer to wind down. I remember that she was reading by flashlight after both of her brothers were breathing deep. Paul and I lay talking quietly for little while before we, too, gave in to the night and fell asleep. I remember looking out the screen window at the rising yellow moon, and seeing the milky mist in the sky.
Much later that night, well after midnight, Kate woke up and softly called to me. “Mom? Sorry….I need to go to the bathroom.” In the warm summer night, it was no real hardship to walk with her to the bathroom, and I got up quickly. I grabbed a flashlight, although it was obvious that I wouldn’t need to turn it on. I closed the door to the camper as gently as I could, letting Paul and the boys stay asleep.
As we crossed the quiet campground, barefoot on the sandy path, we noticed two ponies, drinking from the water that had pooled around the outdoor faucets. We laughed as we skirted them in the moonlight, watching their softly switching tails and the shine of their big dark eyes.
After we had used the toilets, we started back toward the camper, hand in hand. I remember the warmth of the sand on my bare soles, and the smell of the air, filled with the scent of horse and salt and beach grass. I remember the huge orb of the moon, hovering over the dunes.
Suddenly, we heard the sound of a stallion on the beach beyond the dunes, calling a shrill command to his mares. From somewhere further to our right, we heard their whinnying reply and the sound of hooves. Again, his cry came from the beach. It sounded so wild and fierce, it absolutely gave me the chills. Kate clutched my hand in hers. “Mom!! Can we go down to the beach to see them?” Her beautiful face was filled with excitement.
And there was my moment of decision.
The moon was gorgeous, the night was perfect. The sound of the horses was compelling and my little girl was full of curiosity and joy. I should have grabbed her hand and run with her up the boardwalk, across the moonlit sands and onto that empty, endless beach. I should have said, “Of course!”
Instead, I told myself that it might not be totally safe. I told myself that wild stallions are unpredictable and aggressive, and that there could be other unknown dangers to my child on that beach. It was the middle of the night, and we were far from any telephones or police or hospital.
I told myself, and my little girl, that this was only our first night on Assateague, and that we’d have other chances to see the horses on the beach. I took her back to the camper, kissed her cheek, and went back to sleep.
And the truth is this; I have been back to that beach many, many times since that night. I have never again heard the stallions calling on the beach, or seen the horses running under a full moon. I was offered a moment of pure magic, and I passed it up in the name of caution.
And so that is my greatest regret so far in this life. I still wake up on moonlit nights, in my landlocked house so far from the sea, and think about what Kate and I might have seen if I had dared to throw caution to the wind.