It's been almost a year since my husband had his surgery, and looking back, it's been a tough one for me. Mainly because I've had to adjust myself to the reality that my husband, my best friend and true love, has an incurable, life-threatening illness. Before the polycythemia diagnosis, I had thought of him as having a "problem" that his first surgery had taken care of. Now I understand that although he could live for another fifty years, he could also die from a thrown clot in five minutes. I also know that this is the reality for all of us, all the time; drunk drivers, staph infections, so many unknown things, are out there waiting for us around random corners. But it feels different, knowing what, specifically, is hiding around the corner waiting for him. I guess what I'm saying is that i understand now that he's mortal.
In a little bit of kismet, sorting through things today I found this letter I wrote my mother when my father was at the end of a long, degenerative illness and I was facing, for the first time, the mortality of someone I loved. It helped me then, and again today. Perhaps it will be of some value to you.
Dear Mummy –
Here is a shell. Nothing special. Just one of millions the sea pushes up on the shore. But we were at the beach today and I thought of how much you love the beach and I wished you were there with me watching the kids play, watching the tide go back and forth. It’s so restful and soothing and I know you could use some of that right now.
I’ve been sad since my visit – not because things were, in the end, that different with Daddy – but because I finally realized, in my heart, that my parents would not live forever. Stupid isn’t it? But I think it’s one of those things you don’t truly grasp until life rubs your nose in it.
I get it now though, and all week I’ve been going joylessly through the motions of life. I’ve been irritable with the kids and their constant neediness, when I NEED to sort this whole thing out. So today, on a stinking hot Florida afternoon I drove the kids, with some ill grace, to the beach because they were bugging me about it. The kids swam and played and I sat at the tide line for hours, letting the surf wash around me, thinking. Here are some of my thoughts – none, probably, original -- but they helped me so I share them with you.
1. First, the ocean is the greatest nanny there ever was. Take three hot, whiney, totally irritating children and hand them over to her and suddenly you have three absolute angels. She is (for today) gentle and playful but implacable. Play wrong and you get a face full of salt water, play right and all is peace and joy. Whining never alters her behavior.
2. I remembered how Daddy use to float in the ocean with his hat, glasses and flip-flops on. It was always a great amusement to watch a wave sneak up on him and make off with any or all of his accessories.
3. How many hats/glasses/flip-flops do you suppose Daddy lost in the ocean? Where are they now?
4. The ocean is such a perfect object lesson about the impermanence of things. Over and over I watched the kids build their castles, dig their moats, make walls, only to see each careful construction erased into unmarked sand by a gentle, careless wave. Sara even lay her own body down as a barricade (as I would do for you) but still the wave came on.
5. If you could sit long enough in the surf, I believe everything in the world would come your way. Today I sat there for, maybe, two hours. The waves gave me a five dollar bill (!), a stray pair of swim goggles, and, of course, a fine selection of sculpted rocks and shells. I made up a story about the person who lost the five. It was a man, because men have pockets in their swim suits. He brought five dollars to the beach because he was going to have lunch or a beer at the snack bar after his swim. He forgot about it and felt like an idiot later. He might have said, “Oh well, no one will ever see that five again.” I thought about a pearl earring I lost in the ocean at Bei Dai He. I hoped someone found it on a beach in Australia and wondered all afternoon about the girl who lost it.
6. At the beach, your children, instead of bugging you for things as they do at, say, Walmart, bring you things. All I did was sit still, always easily locatable, and they brought me fists full of treasure. All afternoon Eliza shrieked, “Look Mommy! A shell!” It was like someone being surprised by each leaf on a summer tree. She gave them all to me to keep forever.
7. How long is forever when you’re on vacation? Is it shorter than the forevers of home? And How does 'I’ll love you forever' stand up against the waves of time? I guess it’s like those sand castles. You build it up again and again on the invisible foundations of earlier castles, yours and everybody else’s. And some days you might take it all with good humor and keep trying. But other days you might get discouraged and simply stop after a couple of tries. But always you hope that these things that wash away are not lost completely, but find their way to other hands in other places. Who was that girl who lost this earring? Who was the man who lost this hat? And maybe the finder takes the hat and puts it on, wears it into their own time. And so we are carried on, like a relay race. Maybe that’s what it means to say “ I Love you Forever,” in this world. I don’t know. But in any case, I’ll love you both forever, and I’ll recognize you wherever I see you, whoever is wearing you.
My father died a few weeks after I wrote this.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Of oceans and waves and the things we lose (and find)