A few weeks ago, I found out that a neighbor from my childhood street (where my parents have lived for the past 40+ years) was found dead.
Not just dead.
As in, nobody-knew-he-was-dead-for-a-week kind of dead.
He was 76-years-old. Six years older than my dad.
I did the math and texted my sister when I realized this neighbor and my father were both younger than we currently are when they bought houses on the same street. My sister and I both agreed that it didn’t seem possible. They had both seemed *so old* since the beginning of time, and certainly *we* were not old. We did not discuss the unnerving awareness about the the way time moves at lightning speed, and how in a blink of an eye we too will reach our own mortality.
To me, my neighbor looked exactly the same in the 37 years that I knew him. Same beard. Same gentle expression. I remember his wife being a raging you-know-what who scowled at us neighborhood children and never once said a kind thing, but he was the opposite. He never raised his voice. He waved when he saw us. He knew our names. I remember the last time I saw him. His wife had been in a nursing home for years and he would sometimes seek company from my father. Loneliness and passivity had permeated his existence. He sat next to my dad on a fold-up chair in my parents’ garage with the same quiet, unremarkable presence that I knew him by. I paused in my haste to say hello, but then I was off to chase after one of my children. The story of my life: racing from one thing to another.
It’s funny how our minds search for the memory of when we last saw somebody alive. The moment is usually unremarkable and ordinary. I am reminded about how those ordinary moments carry hidden weight, and I try to keep that awareness close to my heart in my subsequent days filled with a zillion ordinary moments. Holding that truth feels like trying to keep sand from slipping through my fingers. It’s a drop of water in an ocean versus a drop of water in a barren desert. You don’t know until you are there.
I think loneliness and passivity about living is a death sentence. I fear becoming the kind of person who is resigned with nothing to look forward to. Bad things can and will happen to me, but please, please, please do not put me in a holding cell of time where I wait for the end with no purpose.
A few days after the news of my neighbor’s death, in the throes of my own personal stress and perseveration over the things I can not control in my own life, I scrawled in my journal, “I wonder how long it will take people to notice when I die?”
And then I started to have other questions, like I wonder during which month I will die? And speaking of which, how will I die?
Amin Maalouf wrote, “… we die, just as we were born, at the edge of a road not of our choosing.”
I think about the things I could not control about my entrance into this world: where I was born, my sex, the way I look, who my parents are, economics, all of the experiences and missed opportunities that accumulated– many of which were dependent upon time and place and factors beyond my control.
I know people (some of whom grew up in the same household as me) who can’t let go of these facts.
It’s always the same complaints.
If we only had _____. If ___________ didn’t happen, then _____.
If, if, if!
I try to let these thoughts pass quickly through me since you can never change those facts. Spending too much time on them only leads to personal quicksand– a place to get stuck.
So much about our death is the same as our birth: out of our hands.
How we die.
Where we die.
When we die.
Sure, there are factors we can try to influence, such as our health, but the rest is indeed a road not of our choosing.
I like to think about my options though. The things I can control. That’s the optimistic side of me, or maybe the bossy first child part of my personality asserting her will in this universe.
I want to know: if I can’t choose all of my roads, can I choose how I go down a road?
We’ve all heard the saying “life is a journey.”
Many of us suffer from destination mentality–me included. The “journey” part of living is inconsequential to our social consciousness.
We understand happiness in terms of milestones: graduation, marriage, parenthood, home ownership, retirement, whatever.
The things we check off boxes for.
One destination after the other.
It’s quietly understood that we’re really not supposed to talk about the final destination, until we get “old.” Once we’re old, we run out of destinations, so then we can sit in our recliner chair and wait for someone to call us while we watch bad television and read newspapers and maybe die and not get found for a week.
My problem with destination mentality is that it doesn’t prepare us for the in-betweens. It doesn’t explain the end. It hijacks our real purpose. It seems silly to string together an entire existence out of a few destinations. There has to be more to this journey.
Who we are is developed during those ordinary days and weeks between milestones. This is when the true journey takes place, between the bottom and the top of the mountain, and then back down again. Step-by-step. There is no journey without those steps.
There is a famous quote attributed to the great Michelangelo that says, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
People disagree about whether Michelangelo actually said that, but there is a letter he wrote in which he said, “The sculptor arrives at his end by taking away what is superfluous.”
Yes, I think.
Yes to both quotes.
Yes to being able to see something beautiful inside of you that is worth unleashing to the world, and yes to likening your role in life to that of a sculptor, living with intentionality and working bit-by-bit on your own personal masterpiece.
A life sculptor.
I daydream about my life beginning as a large, hunking block of unremarkable marble. I can choose to die a block of marble, or I can chisel away until I capture the essence of who I’ve always known I am in a way that others can see too.
I feel like milestones and destinations discount the day-to-day effort we have to make to be fully engaged in living. Life isn’t a checklist. There is no cruise control option. This is the chiseling part. The sculpting. We have to continuously make friends– young and old. Living involves keeping an open mind and learning. Trying new things and seeking joy and happiness despite the suffering and pain that are inevitable in a human life. Most importantly, making an ongoing effort to love and help and connect with others. You can choose to be driftwood and get pushed along by time, but chances are high that you’ll end up tangled up in the weeds.
And yet I’m not fully convinced that this neighbor was tangled up in the weeds.
I characterized him as unremarkable and resigned in life, and there is sadness in knowing a human being died alone. But maybe it helps to know that we do not have to live spectacular lives. Maybe we just need to be kind and gentle and avoid disrupting the rotation of the earth.
There is something remarkable about the ordinary.
And if a person was kind and gentle throughout their life, maybe they didn’t do too bad after all.