In Dis Life

Though I never expect to experience space travel, I understand – in general – the concept of reentry. I comprehend that the resistance of the atmosphere and the strength of the earth’s gravitational pull make coming back from orbit a tricky maneuver. I have, however, experienced the “other worldliness” of the life of a caregiver, and I see the comparison. Caregivers feel detached from life as we knew it, as though we are traveling through space and time in an alternate universe. But then when the loved one dies and we leave the defined orbit of caregiving to return to life as an ordinary earthling, there’s this pesky problem of reentry. How do we find the proper trajectory and velocity to protect ourselves from the frenzied self-immolation of doing too much (or doing too little)? How do we develop enough “compressive strength” to withstand the pressure others place on us to “get over it” and “get on with life.”

Why is the answer to such philosophical questions always the same mysterious, unquantifiable proof – “you’ll have to figure that out for yourself.” The secret is always in finding the balance, in recognizing what’s enough. No formulas exist, yet we can find some recipes to guide us as we develop some philosophical muscle memory.

One of the easy-to-remember planning guides I used when I worked with students on a daily basis was the question “How much gum to how much chew?” In other words, how much information to how much processing time? Imagine filling your mouth so full of gum you can’t move your jaws. Impossible. Yet you don’t need much time to exhaust one chiclet. Boring. The gum analogy works for lots of problem solving situations. Asking the question in terms of something simple like chewing gum can help us be wise about how much we take on and help us think about how much time we need to work through any challenge. Even if the challenge is grief work. How much sad can I deal with? How much time shall I give myself to work that sadness through? I can trust myself to know when it’s enough. And – unlike space travel reentry – it’s okay if sometimes I miscalculate. Like sometimes when I don’t even remember the grief is there.

For example, while I was avoiding the necessity of reentry by vacationing in Hawaii, one of our bus drivers played a song by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole called “In This Life.” It’s a beautiful melody that enchanted all of us as we rode along the back roads of the Big Island, hot pink orchids growing wild along the way. But then the refrain came, and it was more gum than I could chew. “Let the world stop turning/let the sun stop burning. Tell me love’s not worth going through. If it all falls apart/I will know deep in my heart/the only dream that mattered had come true. In this life I was loved by you.” The tears streamed and I was in free-fall reentry. Fortunately, tissues and sunglasses helped me regain composure and the proper public trajectory. (You can listen to the song on YouTube, but if you’ve lost someone, keep a hanky handy.)

But now I’m home. Much of the work of transitioning out the detritus of health care equipment and supplies and returning the house to “normal” is done. It’s time to resume life on my own. Time to create the “new normal” – whatever that turns out to be. So one of the first re-entry maneuvers is to help with this year’s Vacation Bible School program at church. I mean, making Bible stories come alive with children – what better tonic for me than that? Right? And it will be good for me. But I’m feeling some of the initial turbulence of reentry. A whole week of resuming a schedule – out there, in the world? My grieving spirit has enjoyed great quantities of quiet and solitude, floating gently beyond the atmosphere known as “daily life.” I remember teaching VBS. Not so quiet. Not solitary. But very daily. I guess it takes a lot of thrust to overcome inertia. The challenge is to take charge of the controls of my own life – one stick at a time.

And so the countdown to reentry begins. I may have to chew on this for the next few weeks. Code word: Bazooka!

Memorials Worth Remembering

I once drove into a cemetery to attend a funeral and was greeted by a lopsided, handmade sign with scrawled words in black paint: NO ARTIFICAL FLOWERS! Sounding out the misspelling in my mind – “arti-fickle” – brought the giggles during what was supposed to be a solemn memorializing of someone’s life. I admit it. I’m a spelling snob. And a fake flowers snob – well, as memorials anyway. I have lots of fake flowers in my home since I am poor at remembering to water real plants. Fake ones don’t have to be remembered. And that’s my point. Fake flowers as memorials make no sense. Why bother putting a memorial that can be forgotten. So while I made fun of the sign, I am in sympathy with its intent. No ARTIFICAL flowers at my gravesite, please. And that’s the promise I gave my mother, now extended to my husband.

Perhaps our culture is more comfortable with memorials that can be forgotten. We don’t embrace sacrifice easily – well, who does? – maybe it’s that we don’t accept the NEED to sacrifice as part of life. And we don’t welcome having to remember the reality of suffering and death. Much better to keep the remembering to a minimum at least. Bring out the hotdogs! Run cars fast in a circle! Have another drink! Open the pool! Those rituals affirm life. They are much more fun! Such good distractions from hardship and struggle.

Yet remembering death and sacrifice affirms life as well. Clean up a grave. Send a package to a soldier. Visit a battle site. Share memories of loved ones who have died. Make a new ritual of remembrance that will serve to balance our memorializing – because all lives matter, because history deserves our attention.

Athos and I pulled grass from the myrtle at my mother’s grave last evening. Well, he chased birds as far as his leash would allow. I pulled weeds. Someone had gotten most of the mess out before I got there. Whoever that was – thank you. The last two years of shoulder surgeries for me and of Ron’s stroke and debilitation made my grave tending virtually nil. It felt good to be doing the work again. Ron’s grave with no headstone or plantings looked so bare, so fresh a wound in the earth, and in my heart. Somehow the veterans missed him, so not even a flag to commemorate his service. But I remember his life of sacrifice and duty. And that counts. Next I must plan how to memorialize his amazing life in the headstone we design.

Of course, he would not choose to make a fuss. Something simple, tasteful, if I must do anything at all. And I must. Remembering is good. Those of us still tethered in this life need to remember that the tether is temporary, that others have broken free and we will too, that we make memorials for ourselves so that we will not forget the preciousness of life – our own and everyone else’s. And then we can enjoy the hotdogs, cheer on the fast cars, raise a toast, and dive into good times with full abandon because we have taken the time to recognize how brief and uncertain is this gift of life.

Athos and I went to Dairy Queen for an ice cream treat once our cemetery duty was done. A new ritual we may include in our annual Memorial Day ceremonies. Maybe even oftener. Grass has to be remembered and pulled more frequently than once a year. No ARTIFICAL turf for us.

What are you waiting for?

June 3,, 1966 – almost 50 years since I graduated from high school. Next year I’ll have to decide whether I go to a reunion, assuming someone still living in the area will make the plans for that celebration to occur. But this year I can just wax nostalgic. No pressure. Unlike 50 years ago at the end of my junior year when all I could think about was that now I was a senior, now I only had a year to wait for freedom, emancipation, college, adulthood! Remember that feeling? I don’t think humans ever forget their adolescent, hormone-laden, fevered sense of urgency to grow up.  And “graduation” is the marker.

By now those of us who have achieved a different “senior” status have learned that life is a series of “waitings” interspersed amid searches for something worth waiting for – a life partner, babies, new home, new job, vacation, lab results, chemo’s (or whatever treatment’s) end, and – finally – death. It’s all a waiting game. No new insight there. Yet, like graduation, we only really give our full attention when it’s our turn,  when some gripping marker looms before us and we feel the ancy “are-we-there-yet” vibrations in our core.

As much as we claim to hate waiting, we seem to love anticipation-as-existence. When we are waiting for some desired end, we experience a heightened sense of longing. We fanticize about the coming event sometimes even to the point of anxiety, sleeplessness, or frustration. When life itself doesn’t provide enough stimulation, sometimes we even manufacture our own marker-as-crisis just to make life more interesting. It seems odd to me – lover of tranquility that I am – that I have allowed crazy-maker commitments into my schedule.  Yet I have. Often. And perhaps it is this very love of a waiting-for-something-to-happen fix that hooks me into saying yes, filling up my calendar with events, crowding more into daily life than I can possibly get done.  I have lived by Marilyn Savant’s philosophy of having ten times more to do than is humanly possible so that I get to choose which project I work on. As Marilyn argues, “if I only have to do what is possible to get done, then I am stuck doing that one thing.”

But, for the last year and a half, I did only one thing.  I took care of my husband.  All of my waiting game was focused on Ron’s needs, his schedule, his pain.  When we both recognized that the time had come for him to depart, that was an ultimate graduation to anticipate.  The only way to have peace was not to anticipate, but to live in the moment, aware, unblinking, grateful.  Now he has accomplished that goal — two months ago already  —  I am still figuring out how to get back to my own worth-waiting-for pattern of life.

Being so absorbed for so long on end-of-life matters makes you rethink what really is worth waiting for, what markers are important enough to gobble up the finite amount of time that remains for you.  I know what happens if I don’t think this through.  The many opportunities for “doing good” will fill up my calendar by default and I will find myself focused on whatever event comes next, willy nilly.  I will go back to letting life happen to me – with the illusion that there are endless days to fill with busy-ness.  On the other hand, if I  constantly focus on the temporal nature of existence, I am in danger of being turned inward, of feeling niggardly about my days.

How do I reinvest myself in the joy of anticipating planned events, goals, commitments, yet remember the hard-won wisdom of treasuring the moment?  How do rejoin the human (rat?) race without becoming so future-focused I don’t live in the present? Because it is inevitable.  We humans negotiate an already-not-yet existence.  We exist trapped between the past and the future with only occasional glimpses of the Now.

I’ve lived the last year and a half with more glimpses of the Now than ever before in my life.  While I’m not grateful for the suffering and loss, I am grateful for the by-product.  I want to keep that live-in-the-moment choice of focus going forward.

My high school senior grandson, recently discussing his upcoming graduation, said, “Grandma, I can’t believe I graduate in two weeks!  I feel like I have been waiting my whole life for this moment!”

And isn’t that a great feeling? Don’t we envy that exuberance just a bit?  And yet. . . .  if he sees life through the lens of the-next-big-thing-to wait-for, we can tell him that he’ll spend his life in a waiting room and be disappointed by the result much of the time.  So maybe the message for all graduates is, “Enjoy this moment.  Feel it. Learn to treasure a moment like this.  And then learn that life is about making moments.  Lots of them.  And savoring them.  Even the little ones. Especially the little ones!”

Isn’t that the message for all of us.? Whatever we do, do it with all our heart.  What are we waiting for?  The time is Now.