It’s my birthday and we’re in the middle of a big storm. A rain storm, that is, and by California standards, so it is all relative to anyone who actually lives in a place with bad weather. But for us, it is out of the ordinary. At first I was annoyed. Who wants rain on their birthday? But on the other hand, I was going to spend my birthday at my daughter’s softball game and running a kid to and from golf and this and that, so in that case maybe the rain was a stroke of good luck? Nature’s way of intervening and saying, “Yes, today is actually going to be your day. Slow down.”
The other day I walked through my living room and paused to look at the clock mounted on the wall near the sliding door. It was my grandmother’s clock.
“It looked so much better in grandma’s living room,” I thought. I used to think these pieces in my grandparent’s home were larger than life, but the truth is they were just things. Things that were only magical with the people who owned them.
In a week my grandmother will have been dead for one year. This past year has flown by in a blur of life happenings that have kept me on my toes. Grandma would have turned 99-years-old this year. I remember visiting her when she lived in Texas, thirty years ago. She kept her beautiful house spotless, decorated with Southwestern decor, clowns, and clocks. She had an interesting clown collection, a hobby that would terrify some people. I really liked the large porcelain one holding an umbrella that sat on her coffee table. These were elegant clowns, not your circus variety. My grandfather collected clocks, so they also had nice clocks on the walls in every room. I remember the photo albums she kept that chronicled decades spanning back to the 40s, when they started their family. She kept games in the cabinet, my favorite being Cooties. I also loved walking up the stairs and looking at the high school portraits of each of their four children, the middle one being my father.
They would move back to California in their mid 70s, and this is when I really got to know them, specifically Grandma, who outlived Grandpa by 17 years. I watched her downsize her two-story home after grandpa died to move into a one-bedroom apartment in a senior complex that kind of looked like barracks with block walls. She kept a few of her favorite things —like the clown on the coffee table—but everything else was donated or scrapped, 50 years of marital property dispersed into the wind. I got her kitchen table, and in fact still have two remaining chairs from that set in my house, even though they could have easily been thrown away 5 years ago.
Years ticked by. Grandma got older. How many hours did I spend staring at the items in her living room when I made the monthly trek to her place? It’s fascinating to watch a person live to their fullest expiration date. My husband died unexpectedly at 52 with decades of unfinished business, life not fully exhausted, and a full head of jet black hair. My German grandma, who was never known for emotions, cried when he died. Maybe it was because she loved when he did magic tricks for her when we visited, or maybe it was the subconscious understanding that younger generations aren’t supposed to die out of order. But slowly, even an iron granny with impeccable health and the stoic resolve of Queen Elizabeth would begin the final descent too, this much is guaranteed in life. Grandma complained that it happened too slowly. “There is such a thing as living too long,” she said bitterly in her final months. First it was her not being able to go out to restaurants anymore because of the physical exertion it took and not trusting her legs. Expiration came in waves of forgetfulness. My obsessively clean grandma couldn’t keep her apartment tidy, and even worse, she didn’t even know when she was wearing dirty clothes. I remember editing out a stain in a picture we took on her birthday. Her eyes had become sunken and her skin paper mache thin. By then, I had heard every possible story maybe fifty times each and there was nothing left to say. Even before the body gives up, you realize one has reached expiration when the world around them is no longer theirs. In the last few years, you couldn’t talk to Grandma about politics or even about what you were doing in life. If you did, you’d have to repeat something so many times that you knew it wasn’t going to stick, or she wouldn’t comprehend the full details. Also none of it interested her. Someone had a new baby? Ok. A siege on the Capitol? Shrug of the shoulders. When you’re that old, it’s like you exist somewhere between life and death, trapped in a transition. You are not really living anymore. I realized this watching grandma die. This world is for the living. To be alive is to be engaged. I’ve taken many mental notes over the years.
My living room clock had once been in front of Grandma’s chair, where she would sit with a pink cup of water or ice tea and a straw, a Reader’s Digest, tissues, and Hershey’s kiss ready to be eaten. I remember her shopping for that chair when she had given up the furniture in her house and downsized to the apartment. Now this chair was worn and old. The grandma who bought it was decisive and sharp; this grandma was withered and resigned.
I got two of her pink plastic cups and her jelly bean jar when she was moved into hospice. They are tiny reminders of a chapter that has now been closed for a year, but they don’t hold the same magic in my kitchen as they did in hers. They are my teeny tiny grappling hooks to hold on to something that doesn’t exist anymore.
All of this to say, the experience has been another notch in my mortality.
We went to Disneyland recently. I used to have passes with my husband and we went often with our first two kids. We actually went to Disneyland a week before Kenneth passed away, so it is a memory anchored into my mind, a grappling hook for sure. There were rides that we loved, like Casey Jr. I have a video of all of us on that last trip in one of the cages, the music blasting as the train turned a corner, my youngest just a baby bouncing on my leg and the kind of big smiles that existed in a time when we had no idea what was literally around the corner. My first instinct is to want to go on these special rides and relive the memories, so we have. Every time. Yet when I go on them, they never feel the same. The kids are older and aren’t as enamored by the details. No more babies on my lap. Kenneth is not there to share in the delight of watching our kids’ reactions. It feels like a worthy endeavor to try and stir up some of the magic from what we shared in the past, but each time I find it all impossible to duplicate. Such is life.
I think the rides, just like Grandma’s clock and ice tea cups, are meant to be cherished in the moment. For some reason our dumb brains want to cling to whatever it is that made us feel good, but the reality is moments are not meant to be stretched. Moments are supposed to be made and lived in, not saved. I want to remember to indulge each one knowing it won’t last, sucking every bit of joy out of the moment as if it were the very last one I will ever taste, because it is.
I got my temple newsletter yesterday and opened up to the page that lists funerals and memorials conducted in the last few months. I didn’t plan on reading it until a name caught my attention: Aiko Kiyohara. She was the only person left at the temple who remembered my husband and his parents, as she used to bowl with my mother-in-law. She also lived down the street in our neighborhood. When Kenneth passed, she was very kind to us, always greeting us with a hug or squeeze of the hand. When we went on walks we would talk to her if she was out front and the kids picked plumeria flowers from her large plants. She was upbeat and joyful, even as she went through dialysis and dealt with old age. I can’t help but feel sad. She was like a tiny portal to that past life of mine, someone who knew the storyline that often feels like a wild dream in my head. And like so many portals I have encountered in the past seven years, now it has closed.
I was 34-years-old when I became a widow. My life since then has been an ongoing search party to find meaning and direction.
The two oldest kids and I are watching The Last of Us. I used to love zombie movies and shows with their father, and now they are old enough to enjoy it with me. Episode 2 with Bill and Frank: oh my gosh. We were teary eyed by the end. Bill left a letter for Joel, and in it he writes about how jaded he had become in the post-apocalyptic world, until Frank came along. And then he wanted nothing more than to protect Frank. He urged Joel to protect his loved ones. I haven’t survived a zombie invasion yet, but I know a little about what it is like to continue the journey alone, wondering what the point is. The point is that love doesn’t die, but it needs to be shared. It’s easy to love my kids, but I am reminded about how it expands beyond that. Loving people. Friends, family, strangers, neighbors, society. It’s so easy to not love people, to build walls like Bill did before he met Frank and stay guarded. People can be frustrating. But then, are you actually living?
So I turned 41 today. It feels less dramatic than 40, but still urgently important at this age not to squander my one wild and precious life. I learned that the prefrontal cortex in the brain takes the longest to develop and only become wiser and better the older we get. I was so happy to read that I have an advantage somewhere in my body! I’m feeling grounded in accepting aging on my terms and not falling into the traditional stereotypes of what an older woman should look or act like. I hope I have a lot of years left, but if I don’t, I want to make sure I live right now in the fullest possible way. I understand intimately that anything could happen. Tomorrow is not guaranteed.
There is a parable called “Maybe so, maybe not.” I think it helps as a reminder to keep our lizard brains in check. It was first attributed to a man named Alan Watts with possible Zen origins, but nobody knows for sure if it is actually a Chinese parable. It goes like this:
“A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbors exclaimed, ‘Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!’ The farmer replied, ‘Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.’
A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbors shouted out, ‘Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!’ The farmer replied, ‘Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.’
Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, ‘Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!’ The farmer replied, ‘Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.’
A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, ‘Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!’ To which the farmer replied, ‘Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.’”
The moral of the story is that there is no good or bad. There is no luck or unlucky. Life has to be assessed like the stock market, looking at a 10-year history vs. this quarter’s returns. Full of twists and turns. Our expectations and assumptions are mere guesses. None of us have a magic crystal ball. What we assume is negative quite possibly could be the best thing that ever happened. The things we think we want might be the worst for us. That’s what makes being a human so tricky. We are constantly trapped in the “maybe, maybe not” terrain, having to make decisions without always seeing a clear path with definite conclusions. We’re all just bumbling our way with what we know right now.
Today’s rainy day might be a bummer, or it might be the best.
It reminds me that being present is the answer. 41 and doing what I can right now, without the baggage of what this means tomorrow. It doesn’t matter what happened before, or what happens later. All I am guaranteed is right now. Do your best and find your joy.
I’m looking forward to a new year of life, and grateful to all of you for taking the time to read this. My story is inextricably connected to all of your stories, and that is one of the best parts of being human: our interconnectedness.
I leave you with one of my favorite poems, one I try to read often to remember the message.
BY STANLEY KUNITZ
I have walked through many lives, some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
Another great one, Teresa! I share in so many of the observations and feelings you have expressed here…too many to recount (except that I have my mother’s little pink cups too!) Trying to shake the regrets that plague me from time to time as a widow with no family, I aspire to live up to the advice of William Makepeace Thackeray. A little boy told Thackeray that he wanted to be a farmer. Thackeray couldn’t imagine why, but he put his hand on the boy’s head and said: “Whatever you are, try to be a good one.” Sounds like good advice for all of us.
Happy Birthday! JJD
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Thank you! And I LOVE that. Try to be a good one.
Wishing you a Happy Birthday!
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Have so enjoyed reading your blog all these years
Sending you joy……….
Happy Birthday Teresa! I appreciate all your thought provoking and well written posts. Your words “being present is the answer” and “do your best and find your joy” are messages I will carry with me into tomorrow. With age comes the gift of wisdom! Thank you for sharing yours and for reminding me how important it is to “live right now in the fullest possible way”.
Beautiful, thank you. Happy Birthday!!