*So I’m going to stop promising to post on any kind of fixed schedule. Clearly, I can’t keep those promises. But I will try to do better than I have been—I’m aiming for a post every two weeks. Not that anyone asked.
It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things. -Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid
A few weeks ago, my mother’s maternal aunt—my 98 year-old great-Aunt Sara—came down with pneumonia, became disoriented, and was admitted to the hospital. And I saw what dying looks like.
When I walked into the hospital room the first time, Aunt Sara—frail and bone-thin—was moaning in pain while her children and grandkids sat all around her and tried to make her comfortable. And I was immediately struck by how both ugly and intimate death seemed to be. Her sallow face and bony chest and missing teeth. Different hands taking turns holding onto her. The shrill, bird-like noises that came out of her as she asked repeatedly for something to drink, only to push it away whenever anyone brought one to her mouth. The not quite knowing what she wanted—thinking something would help only to realize that it didn’t.
That disorientation that life is full of, death is full of too.
Growing up, whenever my sisters or I would have an overly dramatic reaction to something—a loud gasp or high-octane oh my god—we’d say to each other: “whoa, you just Aunt Sara-ed that one.” Of course, my sisters and I were just engaging in adolescent drama— spilled milk and all. But for Aunt Sara, those audible reactions—sometimes heart-attack-level sounds for skinned-knee situations—came from a primal place of genuine concern. She just loved everyone around her too damn much, and didn’t like to hear about bad things happening to them. And so, in my family, Aunt Sara became a verb.
And I don’t think Sara worried about anyone more than she did my grandmother—her younger sister Molly. Sara helped raise Grandma when their mother died when they were both very young, and the two sisters lived together for over 50 years, raising their children on different floors of the same two-family house in Elizabeth, N.J. And Aunt Sara was so concerned about her sister that she fought her kids for years on moving out of Elizabeth—how could she abandon her little 90 year-old sister like that?
And even when Aunt Sara was finally convinced that it was time to leave, and her kids helped her sell her portion of the house and made arrangements for her to move, she gave it one last shot: she told her son and daughter that she’d “reconsidered” and wouldn’t be leaving her sister after all. (Her children promptly told her that the time for “reconsideration” ended when she sold her part of the house.)
She just loved everyone too damn much.
I’m smart enough to know that I don’t have anything original to say about death. It just is, waiting for every one of us. And seeing Aunt Sara’s whole life crowded into that small, hospital room with blank walls and padded chairs and LCD screens displaying all the information her body was giving away—I didn’t know what to think. I wanted it to have this immediate, revelatory effect on me. Wanted it to teach me something profound about life. But the truth is, I walked away from all of it with just a few “simple, unprofound scraps of truth,” as Tim O’Brien said in If I Die in a Combat Zone: Life is short. Family is important. Seize the day. Nothing is permanent.
I often forget how impermanent it all is. Well, not so much forget as much as allow all the things in my life to crowd out that knowledge: Deciding whether or not to keep the kick-ass pair of winter boots that I just spent too much money on. My machinations to get to someplace warm next month for a few days. Ideas about decorating my study. Questions about when I’m due for my next oil change and how long it’s been since I published a blog post, and has my boyfriend remembered to exchange that velvet blazer I got him for Christmas.
All kinds of noises, some more stupid than others.
And it occurs to me, especially at this time of year when we’re all so busy making enormous resolutions to be better and thinner and healthier, that the hardest part of things is often the middle—when you’re right in the thick of it and it’s so easy to get lost.
I’m sitting here in my living room in the middle of January—when mild temperatures have long since disappeared, and they are nowhere on the horizon. I’m 35, which is on its way to being some kind of midpoint. I’ve been writing a book for two and a half years now, and, though approaching the skeleton of a rough draft, I’m still many many cycles of revisions and rewrites away from a finished product. I’m a few years into the best relationship I’ve ever had. I’m in it, all of it—right in the middle of this big, messy, brilliant, baffling, surprising life of mine. And that’s a hard place to be, I think.
It’s a place where there are no enormous resolutions for me to make—where all there is to do is keep going. Keep doing what I’m doing, keep showing up to my life. Keep writing and editing and re-writing. Keep caring about the kind of person I am and how I choose to treat other people. Keep being honest and flawed and spoiled and selfish and scared—and keep trying to do it all with a little more grace than yesterday.
How do you keep pushing yourself when there’s no big payoff right around the corner? When the end is (probably, hopefully) too far out to be either the carrot or the stick?
I find it all quite difficult, especially right after seeing a life shrunken down to its bare essentials: a woman in the middle of a hospital room with all that florescent sadness and love and fear—just asking for a drink and a little comfort on the way out. It makes me want to change everything, Right Now: get closer to everyone so that my hospital room will be filled with people one day; finish my manuscript tomorrow, see the world, run for days, spoil my nieces and nephew. And while those are all admirable goals—and there’s nothing wrong with reaching to be better—I think the real heroics are in the grit and muscle of the daily grind. I think trying to conquer the world all at once is naive and self-defeating.
I think that if I want to honor Aunt Sara’s memory, I just have to keep showing up, keep caring about people—and keep gasping wildly and dramatically with them when the need arises.