It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on Earth – and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up – that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
As a child, I looked at my beloved Nanna and wondered, “What does it feel like to be so old?” I tried to imagine how my grandmother could get through her days, knowing she was so close to death. (My grandmother was younger then, than I am now!) For me, now that I am Nanna, I have to say, I don’t think about death that often. Mostly, I think about my tasks for the day, whatever I am writing about, how my family and friends are doing, the state of the world, or what I will cook for dinner. On the other hand, I do think about dying more now than I did when I was my daughter’s age. But mostly, it feels like death is some distant future that I will pay more attention to later. I often visualize myself as being at a much younger age than my sometimes hesitant steps and banister-grasping hands give witness to. I go through my days as if I am immortal, imagining endless futures.
Sometimes I think I live in a fantasy world, a world where I am ageless and that there is always tomorrow to do it differently. Rosemary says I am a hoarder, and, in some ways, she is right. I have files of articles and mementos that I have put aside so that I can sort them someday; I will make a Shutterfly book out of those photos of our trips to Hawaii, one of each of our grandsons’ lives, and another of all my daughter’s birthdays. My computers are constantly crashing because they are out of memory due to the articles I will someday read or reread, the videos I will watch, the podcasts I will one day listen to. Boxes of journals and notes are waiting for me to sit down and go through them so I can finish that memoir that I have been working on. I save and save, waiting for the someday when I have time. Other, more pressing ventures inevitably intervene. I somehow believe that I will have years to sort, remember and make meaning of the contents of my hoarded material. Now, I ask myself, “Really? When do you think this will be?”
Some things, however, bring me face to face with mortality. The death of several friends and relatives in the past couple of years has made me take a more realistic look at time. I catch my reflection in a window and am reminded that I have gray hair and walk slowly. Most recently, and insistently, the return of Rosemary’s cancer is a constant reminder that life is unpredictable and I should pay attention. Birthdays are a celebration of life, but also a reminder of passing time. I study the life expectancy charts. If I live to be an average age, I will have nine more years.
My father died when he was sixty. He and my mom had plans for retirement. They had looked at condos in the Yarmouth, Maine, area, where they lived, and at property in Sanibel, Florida, where they had spent their winter vacation for several years. Like many Maine residents, they planned to winter in Florida and summer in Maine. Then, shortly before his 59th birthday, my father developed multiple myeloma and died at 60. He never enjoyed the retirement they had planned. For a couple of years when I was in my late 50s, I prepared myself mentally for death. Growing up, everyone told me I looked like my father, and I assumed I had inherited his genes. I was a little surprised when I passed my 60th birthday and lived.
In the past few months, I have witnessed the husbands of two dear friends face the loss of their wives. Their pain has been difficult to see. Both couples had been married more than fifty years and had close relationships. One of these men calls me on the phone, pausing several times during the conversation to collect himself, explaining that his wife’s death caught him unprepared. He shares poignant stories of plans for her ashes. He muses about where he will live. He also tells me that his wife always paid the bills and he doesn’t even know how to figure out what is owed or to whom he should send the check. The bills were easy for him to focus on. How does one even begin to go on after such a loss?
An acquaintance, a single man just a little younger than I, shares a draft of a book he has written, an explanation of the tasks that fall to executors. He has thought of everything that people will have to deal with after his death, right down to returning library books. On one level, I have never known a person as prepared for death as this man – at least for those who will be left to deal with the remains of his life. As he speaks, I try to remember where our wills are.
As my friends and I get to an age where these are no longer idle thoughts, we ask ourselves and each other questions. Where would l live if my husband/wife weren’t by my side? How would I manage financially? How would I conduct my life in these new circumstances? Of course, these are the easy questions. The emotional ones are harder. How do I hold enough of the pain of loss in my mind, so that I am not in denial about it, but prevent it from stealing the present from me? Since I am eleven years older than Rosemary, I think we both assumed that she would be the one facing such questions, but, of course, that is silly. Death does not go by age.
It reminds me of my dilemma in giving up our beloved Maine house when Rosemary and I were no longer able to care for it. I had, as it turned out, about eighteen months between the decision to sell and the actual leave-taking. I wanted to make the most of that time, but was often overcome with sadness about saying good-bye. I devoted time to packing, but also to sitting on the screened porch just looking and listening, taking endless photos, and creating a portfolio of sounds on my phone, so that I could have the sights and sounds with me whenever I missed the lake. I grieved, but I also was more aware of every nuance, in a way that I would never have been if I didn’t know the end was in sight.
When my 91 year-old mother was dying, the hospice worker gave me some good advice, “Hug her. Hold her. Touch her. Smell her.” It was such good advice. The secret, I think, is in breathing in, taking in the moment, paying attention.
As I was writing this, Rosemary forwarded a blog post, Life in Every Breath, written by a professor from our graduate school, Steven Murphy-Shigematsu. Steven told the story of Ana, a former student of his. Ana knew from childhood that she would die young, and she “decided to live with a constant awareness of death, not pretending like most of us that she wasn’t going to die.” She lived a short, but full life; “Illness became her great teacher of how to live in the now.”
Today, looking at a retrospective video of our youngest grandson on his third birthday, Rosemary asked, “Why do the good days go by so fast?” An awareness that time is limited can bring appreciation to the most trivial of moments. I promise Rosemary that we will make these next years the best ones of our relationship. We will not pretend there is no end. Appreciate, enjoy, celebrate – this will be our mantra.