As I reach the end of my life, it’s hard for me not to look back on all the years that have passed and think of what might have been. Frankly, there are a lot of things I wish I had done differently. But when I consider all the paths my life has taken and those that it hasn’t, I would have to say that my greatest regret is probably trying to fight that alligator five minutes ago.
I’ve made my share of mistakes throughout my life, but scaling that concrete barrier in order to wrestle the largest alligator in the enclosure is probably the one I’d most like to take back.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve done things in my life that I’m not proud of. Over the years, I lost touch with some of my best friends; I allowed myself to become overly obsessed with money and professional success; I decided to run up to a 14-foot-long alligator and swat it right across its snout. If I had been a better, less impulsive man, maybe things would have turned out differently for me, and I would be a prominent architect now, like I always wanted, instead of some regular old joe who’s being repeatedly bitten by an enraged alligator.
I should have fled as quickly as possible instead of limping back toward it in order to jump on its back and pound on its head with my balled fists. I would have learned to play an instrument, too.
In many ways, it’s disappointing to compare the person I know I could have become to the bleeding, savagely mangled person I am now.
Sometimes it seems like my regrets are all I can think about. I know now that I shouldn’t have left school before I got my degree. I shouldn’t have yanked on that alligator’s tail until it lunged back at me and clamped onto my thigh with its powerful jaws. I shouldn’t have left for work each day without saying “I love you” to my wife and kids. But of all my mistakes, the one that haunts me the most is my choice to remove my shirt, leap into the water, and start throwing punches at a ferocious reptile that outweighs me by at least 650 pounds.
Now, are there things I would approach differently if I could do it all over, specifically the last five horrific minutes? Of course. For starters, when it seemed like the alligator was content with leaving me badly lacerated and concussed but miraculously alive, I should have fled as quickly as possible instead of limping back toward it in order to jump on its back and pound on its head with my balled fists. I would have learned to play an instrument, too.
But now that the end is close at hand, I can’t help but ask myself the painful questions that hang over me. What if I had left my comfort zone and taken that job out in California? What if I hadn’t riled that alligator up by kicking it in the ribs? What if I had agreed to move in with Erin instead of getting cold feet and ending the whole thing? What if I had managed to scream “Help, please, I’m in the alligator pen!” while I still had the ability to shout?
Would I be happier? Probably.
Of course, at moments like this, with my vision going blurry as I enter hypovolemic shock, my thoughts inevitably turn to the relationships I’ve had over the years that went wrong. Of all the people in my life—my beloved daughters, my parents, the overwhelmed Bayou Adventures medical staff—my brother stands out as someone who I just simply gave up on trying to get along with. For years, we weren’t on speaking terms, and I could have put that all to bed if I had just picked up the phone and said, “I’m sorry.” Other than turning my back on a charging alligator in order to pose and flex my biceps for my panicked, bewildered friends gaping at me from behind the safety netting, that’s the mistake that’s going to weigh on me most in the few remaining moments of my life.
But I also need to remember that I’ve done quite a few things that I should be proud of. I ran the Boston Marathon. After years of saving, I bought a beautiful home. I managed to get that alligator into a pretty good headlock before it threw me off and snapped my femur with its crushing bite.
And while these are things that no one can take away from me, I find them hard to focus on now. At moments like this—when the alligator’s razor-sharp teeth are lodged firmly in my neck and shoulder and I can feel the strength to resist draining from my body—my thoughts constantly drift back to all the missed opportunities. I will die knowing that I had the chance to heed the three or four signs I passed that said “CAUTION: ALLIGATORS,” but chose not to. Sadly, that’s just life.
Still, I can’t help but think that if I knew just five minutes ago what I now know about alligators, things would be so much different.