"And I thought, I'll always remember that we die. I'll live like I believe in our mortality, like I believe in death. But of course it isn't that easy. Mortality is like a bad dream we kindly let ourselves forget and every now and then something reminds us, but then we forget again." ~~Alison Clement
A friend called me one day last week to tell me that a mutual acquaintance--a person we know of more than actually know, a local business owner--suffered what turned out to be an aortic dissecton during a rigorous exercise routine. This was a routine she had been doing for a while now, apparently, and to all outward signs this woman was in enviable physical health. On this day, though, she collapsed mid-routine--her heart had stopped, but they were able to resucitate her and she was rushed into emergency surgery. Even if she managed to survive the surgery--and the ones that would probably follow it--there were concerns that she had been without oxygen long enough to do permanent damage to her brain.
My friend texted a few days later to tell me the woman didn't make it. She was 42.
My friend and I had that conversation people always have when something like this happens--especially when it happens close by you, but distant enough for you to be philosophical rather than simply devastated. We talked about how you just never know, that you could wake up one day this week or next year or whatever and it could be the last day you wake up and how when something like this happens we always think we're going to live our lives a different way: grateful for the time we are given and determined to use it wisely and to the fullest extent. And how we keep it in mind for a few days, a week if we're lucky, and then all the mundane crap of normal life buries us once again and we go about our lives blissfully--maybe even willfully-- ignorant of our mortality. We tell ourselves that we understand that there are no guarantees in life, but we don't really get it on anything but a superficial, intellectual level.
My mother was also 42 when she died, but it didn't happen as suddenly as in this case. There were whisperings and rumblings and close calls for years before, beginning with the lump she found a few months before her thirty-sixth birthday. I remember sitting in her living room, just the two of us, watching afternoon TV--me on the couch, her on the recliner with her feet propped up--oh-so-casual as though there was nothing to be concerned about--describing the lump as "pea-sized" and, as if to further impress upon me that there was nothing to worry about, she said she was waiting until after the first of the year to have it checked out. It was mid-December then; by mid-March she had had a modified radical mastectomy. The cancer appeared to have been caught early with no lymph node involvement and the decision regarding chemo and radiation was left pretty much up to her.
From her time in Walter Reed medical center, she brought home the surgical scars and a kind of battle-weary air that I had never noticed before, though perhaps it had been there all along--she'd certainly faced down an enemy or two before the cancer. She also brought home the story of a woman she met on the cancer ward. This woman had been given less than a year to live and people kept asking her how she intended to spend what quality time she had left--would she travel the world, would she spend extravagantly on things she'd always denied herself, would she sell her house and rent a Winnebago and follow a carnival around the country? What last-minute changes and last-ditch efforts would she make in her life?
For this woman, the answer turned out to be that she intended to return to her home and her life, exactly as it was and go about living it exactly as she had been and savoring every single precious imperfect moment of it. All those things she might have dreamed of doing someday were not as important to her as the things she had done in her life--I imagine she understood, even if she did not say so, that her life as it was was the truest reflection of the unique combination of the aspirations and disappointments, the striving and compromises that made her who she was. Rather than hungering for extraordinary moments, she was greedy for more of those ordinary moments that accumulate in all our lives sometimes barely noticed, but in the end are really what make life worthwhile.
Sometimes when I hear the Tim McGraw song "Live Like You Were Dyin'," I think of the woman from Walter Reed, and of course I think of my mother, too, who embraced that woman's philosophy right up to the end of her own life in ways I would only understand much later. The song is about a man who faces a medical crisis which brings his mortality into clear focus. It's partly about how he went "sky divin'" and "Rocky Mountain climbin'" and " two-point-seven seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu." (Or as I belted out during one especially sleep-deprived round of Off-Key Car Sing-Along: "I went two-point-seven seconds on a fool named Bu Manchu" which, one would imagine, would be a whole other kind of extraordinary experience. One which neither you nor the fool would likely forget.) Those are the extraordinary moments, but it's also--and more importantly--about how he "loved deeper," "spoke sweeter," and "gave forgiveness" he'd been denying. It's about living an ordinary life with extraordinary appreciation and attention to detail.
And when a 42-year-old woman in excellent health is swept from her life in an instant, it reminds me (yet again) that the difference between a life well-lived and a life barely-lived lies not in the specifics (bull riding vs. toddler wrangling, for example) but in our appreciation of them. Perhaps it is too much to hope that I will use my time wisely (I am, like most of us, capable of wisdom in short bursts but unlikely to sustain it with any sort of consistency), but maybe I can remember to use my time gratefully, in ways that are truest to who I am.
At least for a little while.