From the start, I’ve wondered whether I’d be able to trick myself into living with a greater sense of meaning by imagining that life wasn’t going to stretch on forever. It seems too trite to mention that death is the common destiny of every person on this planet. But, oh, the fog we’ll conjure up to protect ourselves from clearly seeing this certain eventuality.
In practical terms, the mere mention of the Year to Live class I’m taking at the Village Zendo in New York, or the book that started Year to Live groups meeting in living rooms across the country, or even this blog made me feel like a skunk at a garden party. Publicly, no one wants to talk about death.
Yet many mornings since I’ve begun this blog, I’d find a message in my email from a friend or a complete stranger saying that someone close to them had died. Or they had recently received bad news about their health. Or they were somehow also just predisposed to think along these lines.
Slowly, these conversations got us thinking more deeply and honestly about our lives. Some shared poems. One friend even sweetly offered to officiate at a ceremony at the end of this process. (Who knows, I may even take her up on it!) I cherish this new-found community.
Six months to live. The very sound of it makes my heart beat a little faster, makes me feel like I’d better have something pretty profound to say to mark the occasion. “Time flies” and “Carpe Diem” are just not up to muster.
But what is a valid way to mark this occasion? I discovered that in my usual life, constantly working towards some future fulfillment, I’d been losing sight of what is immediately present. What has made this project so tough has been putting the “small” intangibles that really matter into words.
Take this recent experience as an example…
Last month on a rainy London evening, I left the Globe Theatre with a close friend from Spain who I rarely get to see in person. There was nary a restaurant open, so we wandered along the Thames arm in arm under one of those crazy umbrellas that’s meant to withstand high winds, where the front is short and back is long, but turned sideways, it holds two friends perfectly. We talked about everything from work and what it means to contribute to the world, to the damnedest things our kids say, to how we’ll know for certain when we’ve hit middle age. For hours we laughed so hard we shook and ignored all of the social niceties reserved for less-close friendships that warn, “You better not say that out loud!”
This month, the same friend put her 12-year-old son on a plane bound for our home in NY. I’ve known him since he was a baby — she was my first friend to have a child — and we spent many evenings after work taking him along with us to grown up things like art shows and nice restaurants. That time together had taken away some of the fear I carried which equated having children with losing my sense of self.
So there I was, picking him up at the airport as an unaccompanied minor. My sons were with me. Drew presented him with a box of Fig Newtons and a huge hug. We took him by subway to Chinatown, where he gazed at the decidedly strange things sold from barrels outside the apothecaries and fish shops. Afterwords, he and Evan played chicken on the monkey bars at the park, the blond peach fuzz on their legs standing out against their bronzed skin.
The next day in the car, driving to Maine to bring them to summer camp, they fell comfortably into talk about the World Cup. They played a tickle game. Drew was laughing harder than we’d ever heard him laugh. He put his head on his new friend’s shoulder and fell asleep. Evan was endlessly happy that he had someone with him at camp this year to ward off the inevitable first days of homesickness. When the woman at the Friendly’s where we stopped to use the bathroom asked if they’re my 3 sons, I smiled saying, “Yes, for today.”
What I mean to say is that perhaps these small moments are what truly make up our legacies. My warm relationship with a friend flows into a connection between our children, across a vast ocean. Maybe they will continue to be friends, introducing their own children in the future. Or maybe they won’t. In the life that’s important, things don’t need to be so linear.
The poet Natalie Goldberg once said that writers get to live twice. They go about their regular lives, but then there’s a second chance where they look closely at the texture and the details. I’m so grateful to all of you, dear readers, for traveling with me on this journey and for encouraging me to note the small things. I look forward to sharing the next six months together.