“Time is the most valuable thing that a man can spend.” – Diogenes
I finally got around to refinancing the house a few months ago, and this isn’t noteworthy other than the fact that it’s the first time I’ve done it as a single woman, and I calculated my payments based on paying it off sooner to give me the option to retire early. I guess that’s the part that surprises me– planning that next chapter. Already?
The other day, I was in a meeting where people shared their experiences with age discrimination, and a younger member of the group talked about not being taken seriously. It struck me: how long ago was I that younger person lamenting that people judged me for being young? Now, at the end of my 17th year of teaching, nobody ever mistakes me for the rookie. How fast that all went. In the same week, we put out the couch we purchased when we first moved into this house, along with my first child’s first big boy bed– the red Corvette from Babies R Us. It felt like just yesterday we were imagining a nursery for him. By the afternoon everything was gone, and the kids said they felt sad. So was I. There were memories in that junk hauled away to the dustbin of history.
In a few days, we will observe five years since my husband Kenneth passed away. Five years of decisions without him, milestones reached in his absence, an emptiness lingering between that fateful day and now. Five long years and five incredibly short years. You blink and it is gone.
I grew up watching the movie “The Brave Little Toaster,” which was about appliances that were outdated and no longer wanted by their owner. The appliances embarked on a quest to be reunited, and since it was ultimately a happy little kid movie, they were all brought back together. That’s what we psychologically want. It’s the same deal with the Toy Story, until the third sequel when their owner leaves for college and they become separated forever and forced to move on. These storylines tap into emotions within us, our fears, worries, future realities– the writing on the wall.
As sad as it is to have to accept change, I struggled with the kind of change that was unexpected, unwanted, and premature. Mind-bending change. Five years later, I don’t think I have ever fully embraced becoming a 34-year-old widow with a 1-year-old, 3-year-old, and 6-year-old, unwillingly set forth on a new and strange trajectory. It will never feel like something my brain can easily digest.
I’ve learned a lot though. These situations force you to adapt to a story you did not choose, and if you can find the internal strength, you emerge as an active storyteller of the new narratives you spin for your life. I’ve learned how to sit with the unexplainable and unacceptable. I’ve become stronger and tender and vulnerable and also more optimistic and hopeful, while at times worn down and fragile. Five years has taught me that we all need to practice over and over again the dispositions we want to develop, and to practice even more earnestly how to let go of the unsavory ones we hold on to. The world is full of triggers, and still– even five years later– I step in a land mine from time to time.
I’ve also learned to live with guilt: would have, could have, should have kind of guilt. The guilt of planning an early retirement when Kenneth never got to have a single day of one. Throwing away the only new couch we bought together, which he never got to see our children do somersaults off of, and not being around for the next chapters, more couches, more trash pick-ups. He didn’t live long enough to see any of our kids graduate from kindergarten, and our last baby will cross that threshold in about six weeks.
There has been a lot of anger. I’ve been in numerous situations where I was the only single parent forced to watch everyone else with their intact families. I have become consumed with rage at the unjustness of it all, angry at the loneliness, angry that others don’t understand what it is like. Sometimes I get angry when I see the pile of dishes in the sink at the end of a long day, when I feel like I am constantly clawing my way in an uphill battle. I get angry when I have exerted my last drop of energy surviving a global pandemic at home with three kids and no other parent, angry that he had the audacity to die on me, as if it was his choice.
And, of course, there have been waves of sadness. The other day, I sat at the traffic signal in front of my school, realizing he had never seen it. It was installed a few years after his passing. All of those years we made u-turns in the busy, crazy school traffic, rushing to be on time to work that quickly erases our existence once we are gone. It’s stupid. It’s just a traffic signal. But it’s another thing he never got to see or experience, like elections that have come and gone, the really good pizza place we found near our house, Japan, Hawaii, online teaching, COVID, Capitol insurrections, racial tensions, the ups and downs in the 1,825 days since he has been gone.
Grief is such a strange, out-of-body experience. It is something we carry around like a heavy stone on our back. After a while– most of the time– we barely notice it. But then there are times it feels like a crushing force that cannot be reconciled; the surrealness of it all still catches me by surprise.
I have learned that in the fallout of our grief, we learn experientially the true essence of life: impermanence, fleeting, suffering, meaningless. After all, how can you spin meaning out of something horrifically unfair, except to embrace that none of it means anything? And yet, despite all of this– because of it– there is still enormous amounts of joy to be experienced.
Margaret Weis said, “What is happiness, after all, but the fleeting, transitory butterfly of an emotion that is impossible to catch and hold for long before it flies away.” I feel that deeply. All of my joys felt so important and big in the moment, and before long– in the blink of the eye– it sat on my curb waiting for garbage disposal to pick up its tattered remains, or it sits like campfire ashes in a cemetery niche waiting for somebody to visit, or it is in the next thing we will surely grow bored with when the new smell wears off.
When accepted at face value, we find no other conclusion other than to live the joyful moments for what they are, and to coax ourselves to let go when it is time, making space for more, accepting the fact that nothing was ever ours to keep forever. It comes and it goes, like the tides connected to the moon. Predictably and inevitably, all of it is beyond our control.
It’s difficult to ascertain what we should pay attention to in a vast sea of life filled with meaningless minutiae, dotted with moments of exceptionality. It all happens so fast; we live in a state of perpetual distractedness. Duke Ellington said, “I don’t need time, I need a deadline.” And sure, we’d all probably live more deeply and fully with an expiration date in front of us. But if we are lucky, we won’t see that date for a long while. If we’re lucky, we’ll only realize it is here long after the last song plays for the night, sore feet and weary, knowing we danced to every single one. How do we emulate that sense of urgency, seizing those moments of connectedness, while allowing ourselves to authentically meander through this life?
We know the answer is to be fully present as we show up to each day, but of course it is a lot easier said than done. The only thing I know for sure is that when Kenneth was gone, I never expected to miss our trips to Costco, road trips to summer campgrounds, the emails and texts he sent about fracking and hot particles, or the little ways he took care of me, like filling my gas tank and making me coffee. There were big highlights for sure, but it was the mundane details of our days that left me aching in the silence of my home after everyone went to sleep, when I flicked off the last light and noticed deep in my bones how much of an indelible void one person can leave in this universe.
In the book, “Moving Forward Just As You Are,” I read a passage that resonated: “When faced with what seem to be insurmountable personal problems, we can overcome these ordeals by remembering that we are not alone.” This is one of the ways I dealt with loss. I listened to podcasts. I acquired a library full of books about death and life not going as planned, read sad essays and poems, and listened to music with painfully raw lyrics. I became more attracted to Buddhism because of its focus on impermanence and forging a path to happiness despite our suffering.
There is a parable in Buddhism about Kisa Gotami. She had just lost a child and carried his dead body around, unable to let him go. She begged people to help her bring the child back to life. When she begged Buddha to help her, he made a deal with her. He said he would help if she could bring a mustard seed back from a household that had never been touched by death. By the end of the day, she had found many households who were willing to give her a mustard seed, but not a single one had never experienced death. It was only then that she was able to let her son’s body go, realizing that death was the cost of being human.
That’s the conclusion I also came to– nobody escapes this universe without loss. It’s really easy to look around and see people who have the things you don’t have, but there is one inescapable truth: their day will come. It comes for all of us. There is no point keeping score. Everyone has endured and will endure battles that are not always obvious to the outside eye. We can put down our scorecards. That is something I have to constantly remind myself to do. I have to focus on the path in front of me; I’m not living those other lives.
I remember a few months after Kenneth passed away, there was a little boy killed by an alligator in Florida, ripped away as he held his dad’s hand in the water. I remember thinking at the time, “As much as I’m suffering right now, at least I’m not those parents.” I don’t know how I’d find a way to breathe if I had to watch my child die in front of me, before me, senselessly. Some people think it’s weird to listen to sad stories, but even to this day, I find them to be constant reminders of the true nature of life. Nothing is promised. Our time is precious, unknown. When I think of the alligator case, I remember that I’m not the only person to suffer. It helps me put my suffering into perspective.
I think the past five years have changed my awareness about time. I try to sign a lot of my emails and notes, “Thank you for your time.” Even to the faceless person on the other side of an inquiry. I think being a human being with a finite, indeterminable amount of time left means that all of our time is precious, and we should start treating it as such. This chance to be alive is miraculous. Jean-Paul Sartre said, “There may be more beautiful times, but this one is ours.” I wish I didn’t live during a global pandemic, but here I am. I wish I didn’t get the life where I’d be raising my children without their father, but this one is mine. There is still a path of happiness. I say a “path of” instead of a “path to” because I think it is a mistake to treat happiness as a destination. Amidst all of the bad parts of being alive, there is joy. New experiences. A good book. Currently blooming, beautiful bright pink azaleas on my porch. Food on the table. Time with my kids. Goals I can still accomplish. Traveling to look forward to. Cats. Good people. The opportunities and reasons are boundless. All of this grows around my void, between the cracks. Happiness can be found right here, right now. We can carry our grief and also fill ourselves with joy.
And loss is never the zero-sum game that we think it is.
I still see Kenneth in his children. He is here when I come across his writing. He’s in my mind, when I can predict his response to a current event, and in the way he’s changed me as a person. I carry around knowledge that I acquired from him, and I spread it to other people. He’s in all of the people who he had an impact on, and in the ways those people interact with the rest of the world. Kenneth is a streak of light in the sky, a dragonfly darting across the garden, and even the frozen natto at the bottom of my garage freezer that I haven’t thrown away. One-tenth of his ashes are in a biodegradable urn beneath an avocado tree in our backyard, and after a shaky first couple of years, it is finally thriving and budding with the promise of new life. We find our immortality in our interconnectedness. We can be nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
Mostly, five years later, I have to thank Kenneth for the time we had together. When I go back and think, would I do it over again? Would I have chosen someone else? If I could, would I omit the experiences with him to save myself the heartache? The answer is always no. I am not the same person because of him, and that is for the better. To be honest, I wouldn’t even want to go back to that version of who I was before April 27, 2016. Thus, I have to conclude that the only answer to our pain is to be grateful for the ride– the ups and downs– thankful to experience it all. All of it is what makes us who we are.
In the end, we can never erase the truth: it is never enough time. And we still miss him more than words can describe. The world is a little less colorful without him. But what can we do to add more color to this world? This is yet another way he is still here, the wind in our sails, pushing for a better tomorrow, but also remembering to make the most of today– what is right in front of us.
And if you’ve gotten this far, thank you for your time. It means a lot.
“In that inevitable, excruciatingly human moment, we are offered a powerful choice. This choice is perhaps one of the most vitally important choices we will ever make, and it determines the course of our lives from that moment forward. The choice is this: Will we interpret this loss as so unjust, unfair, and devastating that we feel punished, angry, forever and fatally wounded– or, as our heart, torn apart, bleeds its anguish of sheer, wordless grief, will we somehow feel this loss as an opportunity to become more tender, more open, more passionately alive, more grateful for what remains?”
― Wayne Muller, A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough