The transient beauty of everyday life.
A couple of days ago I spoke with Sandy, a woman I met who is also going through chemo treatments — far worse treatments than I am going through and with what is possibly a worse prognosis, though I’ve never asked her specifics. As usual, I groused about the side-effects of chemo and she sympathized, but then said, “Of course, without them I wouldn’t be here.”
I go back and forth about whether or not I’d be here without chemo, but Sandy is certain that chemo is helping in her case and she has chosen that torturous route simply so she can be “here” — in this time, in this place, with the people she loves, doing normal everyday things. As far as I know, Sandy isn’t hoping to live long enough for Make-a-Wish to send her to Disneyland; she has never declared that she simply can’t die until she sees Rome; and, also as far as I know, she doesn’t have a “bucket list” of 100 things she wants to do before she dies. Instead, she is focused on the beauty of the here and the now.
Jesus warned us to remember always that “this day your life may be demanded of you.” Of course he was right. We should live for the moment and be prepared to die at any time. What He didn’t warn us about is that two thousand years after He said that, a doctor would be able to look at us and say, “you have the kind of cancer that will kill you some time in the next 9 months to 20 years and in the mean time we’re going to give you all kinds of things that will make you feel like you’re dying today.” That kind of early warning, while a good reminder to live for the moment, can play havoc with your mental state. You are constantly aware of your own mortality — more so than ever — but the hurry up and wait to die mode is one that mere mortals cannot sustain for more than a week and still remain sane enough to get the toilets cleaned.
What this warning of impending death means for me every day is that rather than using the mirror in the morning just to make myself presentable, I get to take a few moments to stare death in the eye. What keeps me from just giving up and staying in bed all day is the hope that I will catch a few moments in which I will not think about cancer at all and will be able to enjoy the simple careless beauty of every day life. And, thanks to God, that happens quite frequently these days.
Like Sandy, I am not someone who is motivated to press on because I have some extraordinary thing to look forward to. In fact, very few cancer patients I’ve talked to say anything about fighting to live for something extraordinary; instead, they fight to continue to taste the sweetness of the ordinary, which is most often the moment that is careless and unexpected and deeply important and not noticed until years or decades later. People also fight to see milestones, which you might think of as extraordinary, but they are really just a celebration at the end of many ordinary moments — a child’s graduation (the culmination of everyday hard work), a certain birthday (the culmination of living day to day), a first grandchild (the culmination and continuation of a family line).
Yesterday I spent a few moments enjoying the depth of red of a tomato in a basket in our kitchen. The light was hitting it just so and it fairly glowed. There are moments of beauty and laughter like that every day. I enjoy how our Cardigan Welsh Corgi, Q, sometimes stands by the dog treat jar and says “howfie,” which we’re pretty sure is her way of saying “cookie.” I enjoy hearing the way the handles squeak in the downstairs shower in the morning because I know Hank is up and about and a new day has started. I enjoy the way our Lhasa Apso, Rex, says “ack ack ack ack ack” when I come home, sounding exactly like a movie pterodactyl. I enjoy the way Daniel brings in the mail when he comes home from school and says, “Hi, how are you?” What a nice human being he has become. I look forward to years of ordinary moments. Are they sweeter now because I am aware of how transient they are? Yes, and I am both thankful for that and angry that I have had to learn that lesson at all.
I have heard that in some Native American tribes a person is never considered dead until the last person who remembers him or her also dies. I like that. I also like the fact that when we remember someone who has died, it is usually the everyday moments we spent with them that hold the deepest meaning. For example, I have been thinking a lot lately about my dad’s mother. When we visited her and Grandpa in Phoenix in the winter, we’d pick oranges outside their townhouse and Grandma would make fresh squeezed orange juice and eggs, sunnyside up, for breakfast. The juice would be slightly warm from the sun hitting the fruit on the tree, and the breakfast was served with Grandma’s genuine New York accent and humor.
On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a completely different personality, quiet and intense. He walked from Wisconsin to the Grand Coulee Dam and back looking for work during the Depression – that’s 1,753 miles each way. He never said a lot, but his hands were always busy with some project. Later in life he made musical instruments — violins, cellos, and so forth — for the Tucson school district where he worked as a janitor. I remember one Christmas where he very quietly set up a drawing tool for us. It was a simple toy, and nobody stood up and said, “Now we’re making a memory, please make note.” It just happened, and it still exists in my mind, and it was profoundly ordinary and terribly beautiful.
Most of the things that are sweetest to me are fleeting, simple, and sometimes odd moments, but important. My mother had a red and white striped dress when we were growing up, and she coupled it with very red lipstick. I think that might have been why my favorite color was always red. My dad had a way of stroking his goatee and smiling. We had several aquariums in our living room with guppies, guppies, and more guppies. I still like watching fish in aquariums.
Other random memories float through my mind now and then. There was a Boxer who used to play with all the neighborhood kids. My dad barbecued potatoes, and they were great. The nuns in my first elementary school wore white habits because it was hot in Arizona, but they work thick black shoes and what I think were wool stockings, and that looked funny. I liked the way chalk dust and floor polish smelled on the first day of school — all the way until they got white boards when I was in college. I learned to like tea — and very bad tea it was — during play rehearsals in my senior year (and that’s another story in itself…). There are so many moments like that in everyone’s life. It is these and future moments like these that I think about more often than I think about the momentous occasions.
I have been reviewing old and new photos and I am very thankful that both my father and my husband had and have the habit of taking pictures of ordinary moments. There were times when I shuddered to think of my husband snapping a picture of my house when it was messy and my face when it was beyond messy, but those are the photos I like best now.
It is possible to grieve for something that’s lost when you’re still here to enjoy it. Sometimes I feel like the old man about to be tossed in the death cart in the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” I keep popping my head up and saying, “But I’m not dead yet,” or “I think I’ll go for a walk,” only to be whacked on the head and tossed in the cart. Still, no matter how many head-whackers I run into, I keep managing to pop my head up in the morning for one more day of the everyday — for one more everyday morning of drinking my tea, hugging my family, feeding the dogs, and eating my cereal in peace.