“I’m glad I’m not dead.” Those were the opening words of a Christmas letter I received this past December. The letter writer had recently said that to her husband who had replied he was also glad that he was not dead. The writer then added they were both glad that all of the recipients of their letter were not dead. I laughed as I read it even as I thought it was an odd start for an annual greeting. The subtext of course could be either “I’m glad to be alive.” or “At least, I’m not dead.” I’m sure we’ve all had such moments.
Here’s another take on that idea. I heard Carol Burnett discussing her new memoir (“Carrie and Me”) with Diane Rehm, who asked her to talk about a particular moment in the book. Carol’s daughter Carrie was in the hospital for the last time before she would go home to die, and one of the nurses commented to Carol that her daughter cheered them up. Later she had asked her daughter how it was possible for her to do that. Carrie replied that each morning she would decide, “Today I am going to love my life.” I immediately thought I’d write that quote on an index card and put it on my refrigerator door. It is a daily reminder that I too have choices about how I approach each day.
Preparing my tax information is always stressful for me, but my taxes were finished on time. When I submit my form and mail the first payment of the estimated amount for next year I remind myself that I get pretty good value for money from my government (federal, state and local) at this stage of my life. But the emotions of tax season are not about the process, they are mostly about Bill. He always did our taxes—spreading papers all over the dining table—and never accepting help because he believed citizens should deal directly with their government. As annoying as it sometimes was, I miss that messy ritual and our joint ride to the post office to mail the finished forms, usually on the last day. As I organized my own papers for the CPA, Bill was on my mind also because he is the reason I have some income to tax. Bill faithfully saw to it that both of our IRA accounts were fully funded each year. He only got to enjoy his minimum distribution for two years before he died and his IRA was rolled into mine, just as he had lovingly planned.
As I get older, thoughts of death and dying are often part of my day, both because of my own ailments and diminishments and also from conversations with friends. Recently word came of the death of Bob Ward who headed the North Carolina School of the Arts when both Bill and I worked there in the early seventies. Bob and his wife, who died soon after Bill, were among our favorite friends, and I continued to receive his annual handwritten note until this year. I noticed with a little apprehension that no card had arrived from him with the other holiday mail. He was ninety-five and had worked as an educator, composer and conductor until he was ninety-four, which was just the way he wanted it to be. Even so when I read the news the lights in my heart (not on Broadway) dimmed in honor of this kind, creative and ebullient man. A friend here in Celo, who has been ill for many years, is now under the care of hospice and, as his wife has said, “He is on his last lap.” Several of my aging friends are dealing with recent life-altering diagnoses, and there begins to be talk of the probable need to move either closer to children or perhaps to an assisted living facility. Obviously the longer we live, the more we face the loss of our peers, and many times each year our heart-lights dim in honor of those who have graced our lives and are now gone.
During the past month I have been reading “Here If You Need Me*,” the memoir of Kate Braestrup who is a chaplain to search-and-rescue workers in Maine. Out of her personal experience with the death of her husband in a traffic accident and through her work with the wardens she writes with compassion and authenticity about facing death. When someone is found alive, loved ones usually say it is a miracle. Kate believes that miracles are proclaimed in all manner of circumstances when something has happened or not happened against the odds. Her conclusion is that a miracle is not defined by an event; it is defined by gratitude. Since I am prone to noticing little miracles in my own life, I was drawn to that distinction. What then does Kate have to say about those times when the odds win and there is no miracle? She impressed me with her simplicity as she pointed out that in scriptures it does not say that God is death, rather it says God is love. She concludes by stating that if we want to know where God is in the face of death or any catastrophe “...look for love.” It is love that brings family home when a parent is dying or sends the search and rescue teams out to look for a lost child they do not even know. It is love that brings out “all the people in the world” as one worried son said during the search for his mother who suffered from dementia. In the presence of death, it is love that fuels our grief and then helps us heal.
After a long stretch of cold weather, we had several warm spring days. On the first of them I was still grouchy from the angst of tax preparation and weather-driven cabin fever, and I couldn’t truthfully say that it was a day when I had decided to love my life. I did, however, put on a light sweater and carried my lunch on a tray outside to my deck. I sat down at the table with a straight-line view of the bird feeder and beyond to the weeping ornamental cherry tree in full blossom. With a mouth full of sandwich, I lifted my gaze to the tree, but immediately registered a bright yellow blob in the near distance. Quickly shifting my focus to the feeder I confirmed that there was not just one, there were three goldfinches—the first I’d seen this year. One was eating fresh sunflower seeds I had just put out that morning, and the other two were picking out thistle seeds from the tiny holes in the black feeder where the food had been waiting for weeks. “I’m lunching with goldfinches,” I said out loud as I reached for a pickle. I could have expressed my gratitude and said “It’s a miracle” but I guess it didn’t rise to that level. My mood, however, began to thaw and I feel quite sure that in that moment I truly loved my life. Ben Franklin is right about the certainty of death and taxes, but I can also count on goldfinches at my feeders in the spring and the blessings of friendship, which endure in our remembrance.
*Braestrup, Kate,Here, If You Need Me: A True Story, New York, Back Bay Books, 2008
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