Thinking About The Ends

Way back in the fall of 1978, when we moved into our house, we were the youngsters on the block. Our closest neighbors were all in their late 40’s, a couple of them a bit older than that. Their children were grown and out of their houses, as these people had their babies at least a decade sooner, if not more, than we did. We were still all about us. In the four houses on our side of the block, together we totaled eight adults. At this time four of those, including Michael, are dead. He was the baby of that subgroup. Our neighbors to the north, Bill and Marilyn, moved away in the early 2000’s when Marilyn fell and broke her hip on the asphalt driveway. Bill insisted on having it resurfaced every year, until absurdly tall, navigating its height grew dangerous . They moved to a senior citizens’ enclave on the east side of town. Marilyn died a few years later. Bill is still alive and has a new lady friend.

Paint job in progress

Our neighbors immediately south of us, Bob and LouAnn, were our favorites, the kind of people you think about when you hear the phrase “good neighbors.” They were friendly, helpful and supportive. When Michael had back surgery in the midst of painting our house, Bob was always lurking around our driveway when I came home from work, a paintbrush stuffed in his back pocket. “Need any help?” he’d ask. Of course we did. LouAnn found out that Michael loved rhubarb so he was always the lucky recipient of a pie when the rhubarb was harvested. Once Bob pulled a hungry tick from my baby son’s head because I was terrified I wouldn’t get the whole thing out. Our kids got homemade popcorn balls and apples at their house on Halloween. Bob, a diehard Republican, crossed over and voted for my very liberal husband when he ran for alderman. They came over to our house for family gatherings and birthday parties. We developed relationships with their families. Bob died in his seventies, felled by a brain tumor in 2000. LouAnn went on for more years. She saved all the news articles about my kids’ accomplishments. When she just had to have ham salad, I ran to get it from the grocery store. As she aged, we looked out for her, especially during power outages and other scary events like storms. Eventually, she succumbed to dementia, moved into a care facility, where ultimately, she died in October, 2012. Fortunately her daughter, a friend a bit younger than us, is now the owner and occupant of her childhood home.

Juanita and John lived on the other side of Bob and LouAnn’s house. We took a little while getting to know them. Nita was a nurse who worked in my obstetrician’s office. When I was pregnant with my daughter, she swapped appointments with another nurse who was a friend of mine over the full term of my pregnancy. During the last ten days when I was overdue and ordered to stop working, to simply rest at home, she dropped by to see how I was feeling on her way home from work. She was warm, kind and reassuring. John was more distant, a person who emanated rigidity. To me, they were an interesting match. John was politically conservative. When Michael knocked on their door during his first campaign, John ordered him off the property as they’d never vote for someone like him. A pretty drastic attitude, we thought. But somehow over time, we’d all wind up chatting across driveways and back fences. When John was invited to bring a child along on a special small biplane ride he’d won in some drawing, he took our daughter. Over the years, he went through multiple coronary bypass surgery which was humbling for him. I still remember him walking slowly up and down the block leaning on the much smaller Nita for support. He was so happy to be alive that his outer crust crumbled significantly. Nita survived cervical cancer. John was petrified of losing her and wept on the street as we sympathized with him. Our interest and concern for them both touched him and as decades passed, we built quite the cozy old school neighborhood that felt like 1950’s television. They were lovely to me when Michael died. Today they’re both still alive at ages 91 and 90. Nita has trouble with walking and stability. John, who is frail, plagued by failing vision, and coping with a big dose of forgetfulness, still comes outside to do yard work and especially, to mow. John mows. A lot. His yard is well-manicured. I have no idea how he keeps going but I suspect stopping might mean the end for him. In winter, he clears his sidewalks along with that of Bob and LouAnn’s. I’m not sure remembers that people more than 20 years his junior now live in that house. I suppose it doesn’t matter.

In my front yard – Photo credit – M. Mitchell

I think there’s one person older than me who lives further down my block, but otherwise it’s just me, John and Juanita who are still here, decades after I first moved into my house with Michael. Eventually, while some were busy living and others dying, abruptly or over time, with good health and good luck, I find myself suddenly at the head of the line, the line closer to the end. The generation preceding mine has mostly fallen away and I am staring mortality in the face. At least that’s how I feel. Fewer people are standing between me and the inevitability of “the end.” I don’t feel the least bit morbid, but rather practical. I could keel over quickly or live for a much longer time. With each passing day, the end comes closer. That’s just my truth.

Me at about 5 years old.

I’ve been experiencing “the ends” for a long time. When I was the little kid in that photo, lying on that couch, thinking my little kid thoughts, I was already aware that people can vanish from your life. Even back then, I wondered why we didn’t talk more about happens to everyone. As I grew up, I started figuring out that human lifespans are pretty short. I wanted desperately to be sure that I didn’t squander too much of my precious time. I got to be fast, confrontational, moving as quickly as I could through energy-draining situations and energy-draining people. I can’t say exactly how I would measure my full capacity for living but I’m trying hard to squeeze as much out of myself as I can before I can’t. Being close to many deaths of my most loved people has created a singular focus in me, to be fully aware of how I’m living each day and getting the most from whatever I’m doing. The pandemic, the dystopian politics at home and abroad, none of which I can change, have only increased my desire to be fully present and aware in the moments I have. Who knows when my end is coming? Not me. But I think about it. I’d like to go out satisfied that I’d appreciated my life as best I could, especially after the egregious unexpected end of Michael which has been my greatest challenge. How would I ever again feel joy? This past summer, after having my garden become an unexpected way station for countless monarchs on their journey south to Mexico, I stood in the midst of the whirring orange and black wings and felt an overwhelming bliss that I thought I’d never experience again. The natural world is joyous to me.

As the summer months slipped away, I was anxious about whether a real fall season would arrive. Climate change, a drought for a few months and stubborn clinging green leaves convinced me that autumn would come and go in a flash, followed by another dreary COVID winter. I was wrong. The slow transition in color began in mid-October. Every day for the past month, the sun has set on the trees and shrubs which overnight, seem to dip themselves into the brilliant oils and acrylics daubed on canvases by artists for centuries, as they try to capture nature’s magic. Despite big winds and rainstorms, the rich reds, oranges and yellows have hung on and deepened. Every day, I drive down the streets of my neighborhood and through the parks, astonished that I can be dazzled no matter how often I witness this beauty. I don’t need to travel anywhere to see fall colors. Spectacular has parked itself on my front doorstep. As I’ve mulled over the passage of time, my place in life’s line and all the ends I’ve witnessed, these two amazing seasons have taught me that if you have to make your exit, going out after having immersed yourself fully in rich experiences goes a long way to making endings feel more acceptable. I don’t know my future. But I’ve gotten a lot from the present. Here are some photos of my autumn joy.

And for good measure, a brilliant sunset followed by moonlight.

The end. For now.

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