Gloom and Light

One of the humorous suggested epitaphs I found in my husband’s notebook after he died.

Let me start by saying that I’m keenly aware that the forthcoming numbers I’m going to share are definitely first world problems. I don’t live in a war zone where large groups of people get bombarded and disappear in an instant. There’s no famine in my part of the earth. Natural disasters which can instantly wipe out lives are uncommon where I live. I know all this. But those caveats aside, I still feel like I’ve known a lot of people who’ve died in the past three years. Twenty-three, to be precise. Only one had made it to 80 years of age. The youngest was 19. Causes of death ranged from drug overdoses to suicides to cancers to heart attacks. There were those which came without warning and those which were a culmination of the gradual and inexorable slide to the end, usually cancer finales. When you get into your seventies, you’re aware that death, the true fellow traveler of everyone, will be presenting its invoices on a more regular schedule than it did during your youth. Still, even for someone like me, a seasoned semi-pro at death, these final exits can feel pretty gloomy. As death begins nipping at the heels of my peer group and more, staying in the light gets more challenging.

June, 1964 – Eighth grade graduation.

I got started early at trying to keep my balance during dark times. I remember feeling anxious about the possibility of death when I was just about four. My mom disappeared into the hospital at that time, leaving me and my three siblings in the care of our maternal grandmother. Grandma was in charge of us while our dad was at work. She was a harsh character, at least for me. I missed my mother desperately. My brother, eight years my senior, recognized my suffering and snuck me off to visit mom. An event meant to comfort me turned out quite opposite of that benign intention. My mother, post-surgery and loaded up with painkillers, didn’t bat an eye when we slipped into her room. Instead, she goofily, raised her hospital gown to explain her situation, showing us a raw-looking vertical abdominal incision, the image of which is still seared into my brain. I was always a bit afraid of the vulnerability of bodies after that, particularly hers. I worried about her all the time. But the deeper fear came later, on the day I graduated from eighth grade. I’d just turned 13 the month before, that magic number that felt like a bridge between being a little kid and a neophyte adult. I was wakened on graduation day by a muffled conversation going on between my parents. I was excited, jumping out of bed to join them. I could sense that something was wrong and instinctively pulled back. But my mom saw me and immediately said, “Renee, your graduation has been marred. Your cousin Iris has died. Dad and I have to go be with your aunt and uncle. Your sister will go with you to your graduation.” I just stood there, stunned. Iris was a baby, not even two years old. I couldn’t process what I’d heard. Babies are weren’t supposed to die. And even worse, I felt terrible shame at being sad, not only because she was gone, but because I was selfishly sad that my parents were going to miss my special day. I’ve never forgotten all those emotions which were my true introduction to the ephemeral state called life. Dealing with life and death meant juggling all kinds of feelings, some of which made you confront the less than attractive parts of yourself. I think that was the beginning of that difficult state called self-awareness, sometimes easily accessible and other times, so elusive. Trying to stay self-aware is my lifelong project.

My brother holding my cousin Iris.

Since that long ago sad day, my life, like most people’s, has bounced from mundane everyday moments, to the joyous and dark ones. I’ve lost many people along my way. The worst deaths were the suicides of the young. They felt so wrong. I was left wondering how the dark parts of life, which happen to everyone, become so impossible that the only light they saw was a final exit. I’ve spent a significant part of my days trying to understand how to balance these two poles of existence. I’ve learned that for some people, the weight of the dark side, which I think is intractable clinical depression, remains a burden that can be impossible to overcome. Certainly it is as lethal as any other disease. A tragic place to wind up. Luckily for me, after recognizing my own internal dichotomy between what I might call my better angels and my not-so-great demons, I realized that I could have an impact on the constant tension between gloom and light. Yes, events in life can just happen, with no advance warning, with no time to prepare. So how to have any agency over this random universe? I thought about one of my dad’s frequently repeated pieces of advice. “You have to have a plan,” he’d say, over and over again. Yet, plans can get blown up at any moment, due to unexpected circumstances. So I’ve worked on modifying that advice, making a plan, yet remaining nimble enough to adjust it when necessary.

There’s nothing I can do about the fact of my age. Nor can I change the reality that for however long I go forward, I will lose more loved ones and friends along the way. That’s the gloom. But I can create light in the middle of all that. I’ve found my way by doing what I call living from the inside out. What I want and need and feel is what I aim for in my daily life, irrespective of what might seem important to other people. Getting to that place has taken quite awhile. But I’ve learned that by, as the old saying goes, traveling to the beat of my own drum, I’m better able to manage the hard times. I suppose it’s because I feel secure and comfortable in knowing that despite what may happen, I’m doing everything I can to make the most out of my time. I think the best part of this plan is that when I go to sleep at night, for the most part I have no regrets about what I’m doing. That’s worth more than anything to me.

I exercise every day, mostly swimming, but also walking. I’m not very fast but I’m consistent. I feel better when I’m moving and hope I can continue it for the foreseeable future. I listen to lots of music which is so helpful to me. I read. A lot. These are the things I can do for myself which don’t require any help from anyone. At least, not yet…

A beautiful hibiscus

I also practice bringing life into my days. I am constantly working on making my yard an inviting space for all manner of birds, insects and even the annoying rodents who are part of my mini-ecosystem. Feeling like I’m doing a little something to provide habitat for pollinators is particularly important to me. When the gloom of climate change casts its dreadful pall, I can go outside and feel less helpless. Just being out in nature helps me keep my perspective, knowing that I’m just a small thing passing through time, like everyone before me and everyone who’ll come after me. That doesn’t mean I don’t get sad. It means that I can work my way back to feeling lighter. And doesn’t that make me the lucky one.

Part of the pollinator’s garden
A visiting hummingbird
A happy bee
A beautiful monarch
A resident cardinal

I feel like I’m continuing to improve at finding my way through all the challenges life has thrown at me and which will continue as long as I’m breathing. I often wonder what will be the thing that could derail me from using these coping skills which have been so useful to me. After all, I’ve survived the death of my life partner which once seemed impossible. Of course some of my success at this living business is partially due to the still powerful sense of that decades-long relationship which is still alive inside of me. But that is another story…

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