Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Last night as I lay in bed I started re-reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was delighted that I was fulfilling a promise I’d made to myself. Years ago, revisiting this book made my “desires” list, the list of things I wanted to do before I die. While turning the pages, a few long-forgotten dried maple leaves tumbled onto my chest. The leaves were a bonus. I don’t know if they were my talismans or those of my family, all of whom I’d pushed to read this book that changed the trajectory of how I understood the world. They made me smile. They are perfectly preserved which somehow feels symbolic. They felt like emblems or markers of my mind broadening. Marquez opened my intellect to magic realism and I burned my way through his books as well as those of other Latin American authors. Like traveling, reading books from other cultures stretches you and opens your thoughts to different ways of looking at humanity and their multitude of styles and customs that exist on this planet. I think it’s been good for me and would be helpful for virtually anyone.
A tiny part of me feels like going back to something I’ve already read is a waste of time, given all the “new”that’s out there waiting for me. My list of books that I need to read never stops growing. I feel frustrated knowing I’ll never get them all finished and that each day, so many new ones will appear. As a teenager, I remember feeling crushed when I read the statistics on how many books are published daily. My dream of consuming them all was one I had to abandon. But, despite that, there are a few books that I’m determined to experience one more time.
I concluded that one more time was worth it back in 2007. At that time I was approaching the 30th anniversary of my job. How very strange that I stayed in the same position while I knew that so many other people changed employment every five years or so, continuing to advance their careers. My job was a career of sorts. I didn’t plan for it and in fact had never even heard of it until I was in my late 20’s. A friend of mine was elected to public office, assessor of our city. She needed a deputy to handle commercial property assessments. I’d had a dreadful job managing 350 campus apartments for a company I loathed for its slimy business practices. That was enough for her. I quit that job which gave me a sour taste and soon began working with my friend. During my first year, I attended numerous classes and became a CIAO, the certified designation for assessors in Illinois. Every year thereafter, I took thirty hours of classes and honed my skills as the chief deputy assessor. My job had a lot of impact on my community. Once the assessor’s office was run as a good old boy system. Our team came in and cleaned out the back room deals, upgraded the technology of the office and professionalized our work. We strove for fairness and equity and won the trust of the community. Nobody loves to pay their property taxes but they’re used in local budgets so people can actually see where their dollars go. We made ourselves accessible to the public. After two terms, no one ever ran against my boss again. So there was my career.
I was never ambitious about the external part of life. I never sought recognition or promotions – I guess whatever drives people in those ways didn’t make it into my DNA. I had wide-ranging eclectic interests and was more interested in building a family than a profession. So I stayed in my job. I had great benefits, a wonderful boss/friend who gave me autonomy and flexibility based on trust and respect. The years flowed along. Work was work. I was proud of duking it out with corporations and arrogant attorneys. But I never had a vocation, unlike my husband who loved two careers and felt passion for what he did every day. I was a respectable underachiever. But work ate up a lot of hours. As time went on, I daydreamed, thinking about all the different things I could do if only I had the some extra minutes. Working, being a wife, a mother and a caregiver for my parents, took up a lot of time. Managing a household and my beloved garden, and having hobbies and interests sucked up whatever spare moments existed. If only sleep wasn’t required.
Back in 2007, anticipating retirement a few years down the road, I started carrying a small notebook with me every day. When I found myself thinking of one of those no-time-for this things, I wrote it down. Eventually the list grew long. Cooking new recipes, reading new books and returning to old favorites, listening to music I’d never heard, began filling my little pages. Sometimes I’d read my little green book from start to finish and find that I’d written the same thing several times. I figured that when I got my chances I’d start with the duplicates first. Of course, life has its way with all of us. Known in my immediate family as the itinerant lecturer, I regularly advised myself that the people with the best lives are the people with the best coping skills because coping is required of us all. And there were those inevitable unanticipated curves. I did actually retire at the end of 2010.
But instead of retiring into relaxation, I became the caregiver for my daughter’s first child. I was happy to do that because I remembered how anxious I was as a new mother, having to leave my infant with a stranger, an infant who could never tell me anything about what happened during the day. I started caring for my little grandson when he was 7 weeks old and stayed with that job until he was almost three. My work hours were long, the adjustment to being a stay-at-home surrogate parent was a challenge and I was bone tired every day. I wouldn’t have traded a minute of it.
My mom became an additional dependent the following year, moving in with us as her ability to live alone diminished. The next year my husband was diagnosed with cancer. So much for the little book of desires. I passed the 115 mark on the list. I think I scratched off a total of three items before life consumed me and thoughts of dreams receded into the background. For the next five years, my focus was survival mode which covered a lot of turf. I wanted to keep my commitment to my grandson and his parents. I took care of my mom as best I could until it was clear that three needy people was beyond my ability. Mom went to assisted living and eventually died in 2015.
My grandson was ready for day care at just about three and made a great transition which left me feeling gratified that I’d fulfilled my promise to keep him safe, happy and interested until he was ready to be in the pre-school world. The next use of my time converted to trying to help Michael live as long as possible, with high quality life experiences. I became a researcher, leaving nothing to chance as we explored every treatment option to keep him alive. And when we caught a break, we stuffed as many retirement type activities as possible into what we knew would be a limited future. We hit the road and traveled to beaches and national parks.
We kept our balance by immersing ourselves in nature which helped us recognize how tiny our lives really were compared to the majesty in front of us. My little green book was trounced by the desire to squeeze as much joyous life with him as I could get into whatever we had left ahead. And we did.
Now he’s been gone for a eighteen months and I’ve turned my attention back to that tattered to-do list. Slowly, I’m working my way through it, trying to be mindful that despite all the unexpected twists in my road, I still want to do all the things I pined for when I was too busy. I don’t want to squander whatever time is left for me in this life. I’m not intending to race my way through Marquez. I’m going to read each page slowly and absorb the marvelous imagery and the fantastic characters that captured my imagination 44 years ago. I’m going to feel everything I can. After all, that was the point. Unexpected challenges didnt erase what drove me in the first place. I will read, I will write, I will organize and I will travel. I’ll enjoy my friends and family. I’ll continue unearthing the history of my home and my family tree. I’m still here, chasing the little dreams that make me myself. And I’m keeping the promises I made to me. As a friend recently said, you’re living large. I’m trying.