Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Carpe Diem

Peggy's husband died last week at the Veteran’s Hospital. A Vietnam combat veteran, he passed away surrounded by a loving group of friends, held by his wife as doctors removed life support. Last Friday we filled the Congregational church; family and friends. Bob, a serious man I know only slightly, ministered at the podium. He is a mail-in reverend who owns a Jack Russell Terrier named Walter, famous for his terrible terrier antics. Peggy stood at the front of the room, receiving hugs and condolences.

Many of us see each other only occasionally, so the chatter took minutes to subside while we said our hellos and exchanged hugs. People in recovery are huggers, oblivious to how nervous it makes non-program people. When finally we quieted, Bob offered a poignant portrait of Bill, who died from throat cancer after a lifetime of smoking and occasional relapses on crack. Bob told anecdotes about Bill; about the time he was selected from the audience at the Renaissance Festival and pulled to the stage to “be king.” He made his wife come up to the stage and kneel before him. “That didn’t happen at home,” Peggy said. We all laughed. We know Peggy and we knew she wasn’t kidding. She definitely was the king of her household. Bill bowed to her wishes. Hers and crack’s.

As pictures of Bill, an accomplished photographer who was usually behind the camera, flashed on a screen, attendees shared their recollections about him. The memorial service lasted 45 minutes, perfect for a group of recovering addicts. Many of us still have a hard time sitting still. It was such a beautiful service that I approached Bob afterwards and only half-jokingly said, “I want to reserve you for my memorial service.”

That night many of us wrote about the beautiful ceremony on Facebook. “I booked Bob for my own memorial service,” I posted. Then I went to sleep.
My phone rang at 6 on Saturday morning. “Hello,” I said groggily. “Nancy, are you sick?” It was my sax-player friend Rayna in Central Missouri time, where I lived until I returned to Arizona in 2008. “No,” I said. “Why?” The fact that I had a liver transplant six years ago rarely occurs to me; but to my friends who watched me nearly die several times both before and after the transplant, that detail remains firmly fixed in their minds.

“I just read your Facebook post about your memorial,” she said. I started laughing. “No, I’m fine,” I said. “Thanks for asking.” I hung up and went back to sleep.

After I got up, I drank my coffee and updated my status on Facebook. “The reports of my death are highly overrated,” I posted. But are they? Are anyone’s? Did anyone who went to work at the World Trade Center on that warm day in September of 2001 expect to die? Does my brother, who is in the agony of three months on a feeding tube after esophageal cancer surgery, what is left of his stomach the size of a fist? Each time he eats he vomits into a kidney-shaped plastic bowl. Does my middle brother, raging in his alcoholism and denial, expect to die soon?

I think of myself as 25 or 30. It surprises me when young people treat me as “old” or talk around me as if I am not there. I was in the carwash a few months ago and a young cashier admired my copper jewelry, commenting on this piece and that piece. “You’re like a really hip grandmother,” she summed up enthusiastically. For a moment, I wondered who she was talking to. I went back to work in a huff, telling my older coworker what she said. I felt only slight better when my coworker laughed and said, “Don’t feel bad, dear; that’s why she will always work in a carwash.”

I am 55; solidly middle aged. I don’t feel it. I feel 30; that I still have a full life still ahead. None of us know when our hearse will arrive. As I waited near death for the liver transplant, not sure if I would be put on the transplant list, I was forced to accept that I might die. I spoke often to the God of my understanding, telling him how powerless I felt and how sure I was that I still had things to finish. “Of course it’s your choice, God,” I would say humbly. But I wasn’t humble. I wanted to live so desperately! I wanted to sit in my armchair in the middle of my five cedar-lined acres in Missouri and watch the squirrels fight the blue jays for possession of the feeders. “Carpe diem, squirrels,” I would say, laughing as they climbed up the most ingeniously designed anti-squirrel feeders. I wanted to live long enough to write a book. I wanted to see the newcomer women I sponsored stay clean and celebrate their victories—getting their driver’s licenses reinstated, buying a car, getting married, having children.

We don’t know which day we will die. As I have aged, I live each day with that fatal understanding that I am granted a tiny, daily reprieve. As my friends and family get sick and die around me, those days I contemplate dying. Most days, I live a life full of joy and occasional wonder. For each day, I am grateful.


Shadow said...

i feel like you, 25 or 30, no matter what my earth years may actually be... nice to see you back.

An Irish Friend of Bill said...

nice to see you back too :) good to read your story.. thanks for sharing.. yes ive gained weight which made feel feel very aged, but its because I need more exercise to maintain my old weigh, and good habits have slipped, hence weight gain.. age does sneap up on s but i want to be an ernestine shepherd if i can get motivated to do the work :)