By Carol Nadell
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
- Encounter by Czeslaw Milosz
“Wonder” indeed. That is the feeling I experience more and more often now that I have reached the three-quarter century mark and find myself grappling with the inevitability of my own mortality.
It’s not a morbid thought – not, as this poet says, “sorrow.” It’s more like a childlike curiosity. What does it really mean to die, to end this life, to - in Shakespeare’s words - “shuffle off this mortal coil?”
I cannot seem to get my mind around this eventuality which will, of course, come to us all. After my husband died following years of ill health, I remember saying to my friends, “I was prepared for him to die. I wasn’t prepared for him to be dead.”
It was what I called the “non-hereness” that was the hardest reality to understand and accept. How was he not just in the next room, watching TV? How was it that we wouldn’t be sitting down to dinner together? How was it possible that after almost 40 years of sharing a bed, his side was now empty? Forever.
That was almost five years ago and still today something in me balks at the permanency of the loss. I’ll never see him again? How is that possible
These days, I am often brought up short by the recognition that someday I, too, will be gone. In those moments, I frequently envision my grandchildren – all young adults now – around a table regaling each other with stories about me.
“Remember the time Savta took us to the theater for the first time? Remember how she always made us linguini because we didn’t like the angel hair pasta we got at home? Remember how she always corrected our grammar?”
Because I have been blessed to share many sublime memories with my grandchildren, these imaginary conversations go on and on. They include the fun times together in New York City, the special 10th birthday trips out of town, the advice sought (and often heeded), the special secrets shared between grandchild and grandmother, the tears and the laughter.
I eavesdrop on these conversations and they make me smile. But what is most striking about these imagined family scenes is that I am not in them. Just as they have recounted memories of their grandfather, my husband, so lovingly and longingly since his death, so it will be with their thoughts of me.
There will be a time when I’ll be only a memory to those people in whose lives I am today a powerful and dependable source of love and strength. Perhaps my grandchildren will someday share their memories of me with their children, to whom I may well be no more than a name.
Will they roll their eyes as their parents try to tell them of their beloved Savta? Or will they yearn for more information about the woman they’ve heard so much about and have, perhaps, seen in photos their parents have managed to save on whatever futuristic digital devices their heads are buried in? Will they feel my presence and wonder at my “non-hereness?”
I read an essay recently by a newly-widowed woman who, in listing all the “facts” of her new existence, cited buying a car, donating to non-profit radio, and paying property taxes. “These are now the facts of my life, a few among many,” she continued, concluding with a simple, declarative statement: “Alan is not among those facts anymore.”
What will it look like when I am no longer “among the facts?” I wonder.
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