Life Is Going To Get Us: On Close Calls & Gratitude: Everyday Magic, Day 361

In the past few days, I’ve heard from two friends who lost close friends, another diagnosed with cancer, several facing financial despair and one in great physical pain. Then I woke up this morning to several friends’ postings on facebook about gratitude, not the kind of mild satisfaction at getting a check in the mail, but gratitude rooted in vast appreciation and understanding of what it means to be alive against the backdrop of close calls.

When I was going through chemo and bouts of fear storms about mortality, I had a realization that stayed with me: surviving anything means being around to survive or not survive another. Life is going to get us, one way or another whoever we are, whatever dark leafy greens we do or don’t eat, and whatever we believe: our beloveds will endure hardship, pain and eventually die, and so will we.

Yet at the same time, life is going to “get” us: show us who we really are stripped clean from our stories of why we are this way or that. Even the “this way or that” will fall away in a moment: sitting in a doctor’s office, trying to take in a surprisingly diagnosis; answering the phone to discover an old drinking buddy and sweet conspirator has died; running into someone we haven’t seen in decades and who only knows us long before however we clothed and accessorized our identity.

That moment, one that comes more often for me after rounding the half-way point of what I hope will be a long life, when a close call cleanses us free of any illusions is also a moment to land in gratitude. Not to say there’s not sufficient or overwhelming pain, grief, loss, betrayal, anger and despair also, but being shaken alive so often shakes people into gratitude for this life. I think of funerals where I hear, “At least she’s not in pain anymore,” or car accidents when so often the talk is, “We were so lucky to be hit on this side of the car instead of that side.” I think of the writing groups I lead for people with serious illness who, even when facing years ahead with Parkinson’s or very limited years with late diagnosis cancer, the writing and talk is both “Life sucks” and “I’m lucky to be alive.”

I remember especially a woman from an advanced metastatic disease group I facilitated last summer. She had late-stage pancreatic cancer, and wrote about how thrilled she was that her young children could now ride their bikes on their own to the mailbox and back, down their long driveway. She was happy because that showed her they would be able to get around some after she was gone which, sadly, came to pass within months. While I doubt her children will ever be grateful their mom died, I hope they can feel some of what she felt: a gratitude for life cycling itself forward.

It seems the flurry of close calls and losses comes in waves, and many of my friends are riding such a wave now. While there aren’t words to made up for whatever is gone, whoever has died or however the next medical scan turns out, I hope we can all get the gratitude on the backside of the close calls, which opens our tender, breaking hearts to the song of life.

When Life Puts Life In Perspective: Everyday Magic, Day 182

Just as we were leaving the house to dance our butts off and eat delectables at a Bar Mitzvah celebration, my little phone rang. I looked at who was calling and was happy to see it was my illegally-adopted sister-in-law, who I hadn’t spoken to in a while. Maybe we would be getting together soon, I thought as I pushed the answer button, but as soon as she said my name, I knew something terrible had happened.

It turned out that her mother had just suffered a heart attack on the other side of the country, things were looking more than serious, and she and her family couldn’t get a flight out until morning. After the platitudes of, “let me know what I can do,” I hung up, looked around my quiet room, then knew what my friend had been teaching me by showing up at our bad news for over a decade. A quick change in plans, a trip to Dillons to pick up some chicken and brownies, and soon we were at our friends’ home, just being with them for a few hours of eating, talking, laughing, crying, hoping, listening carefully to what could be gleaned from phone calls with Filipino nurses in L.A., washing dishes and just hanging out.

For several days, I’ve been absorbed in state budget cuts, registration processing for an event I’m organizing, and worrying about how many cookies I’ve been eating. Nothing like life to put life in perspective. All night, I felt a soul-aching sadness for my friend, who loves her mother like nobody’s business, talks to her mom multiple times each day, texts back and forth and sends pictures over the phone constantly. Whatever happens, it’s going to be hard going for my friend and her family. All morning, I picture them on the plane, transferring flights, on another plane, and soon, landing. What will they discover?

I don’t know, only that whatever happens in life, it’s our love for each other — our way of being in one another’s presence for the good and the bad, and how we treat each other in the in-between — that makes the difference. Meanwhile, I light the candle in my heart for my friend, her partner and son, and her mother. I carry them with me, and in doing so, my life is made better, even if sadder.

Remembering Mark, Rob and Others Gone: Everyday Magic, Day 158

There’s something about the end of the year that makes me think about who vanished from this world over the last year. For 2010, I remember two people especially, both men I met in the early 80s who died suddenly and unexpectedly. Rob left us in February at the end of a too-long-for-him winter. Mark died in summer out of the blue.

Rob was a river rat, tree flying trimmer extraordinaire, coffee-drinking-from-a-mason-jar, dreamboat prairie man who dated some of my pals over the years and could best be seen walking down Massachusetts street with his dog. We always smiled, occasionally hugged and said, “How you doing?” and even more occasionally talked for a few minutes. He was part of the landscape for me but a very close friend of some of my close friends. I miss seeing him in front of the Bourgeois Pig, his long hair flowing and dog trailing.

Mark was part of every potluck and party we threw, all the KAW Council events from 1982 onward, and the general fabric of my tribe. He was always around — in the library, at a potluck at Danny & Kat’s, in the middle of any outdoor event, and during a great many camping trips and geographic and emotional expeditions. I still keep thinking he’ll show up at the next gathering at my house, carrying a paper bag of salad fixings and some cheap energy-efficient lightbulbs he found to the porch. He was an endearing and odd mixture of shy, passionate, quiet, wanting to be heard, political, spiritual, impatient and wise.

Their absence feels like a shadow presence, just beyond what I can see, much like I feel about others close to me who died, and particularly, died suddenly. I still think of them as if they were just here, just alive — my child brain unable to grasp how people can vanish.  A year ago, I couldn’t begin to imagine Rob and Mark gone. A year from now, I wonder who precious to this community will have died. There’s no way of knowing, and the weight of this sweetens the deal of living.

Picture: Rob, and then Mark (on right) with Gary at Nat’s graduation party