The math struck me recently while I was thinking about my mom. She was 62 when she passed on. I’m 43 now. If I get to live as long as my mom did, I have 19 years left.
It’s simple math. Just plain subtraction. An elegant equation.
The starkness of loss came to me late in life. Twelve years ago death made its self known to me, as Vinnie and I started attending a slough of funerals that stretched over years, most for people who died way too young. Those deaths ranged from ski accidents, a freakish unexplained death, bitter battles with cancer, long illnesses. And the amazing, just-as-it-should-be death of my 92-year old grandmother who passed on surrounded by family and friends.
My adult years have been punctuated by some piercing moments: singing to my mom as her body labored with its last breaths as her soul departed, the biting agony of learning that a friend with teenage daughters died from cancer just months after my own mom, my beloved cousins grieving for their father who died not long after.
And thankfully, blessedly, there have been shining moments of joy and hope: the thrill of standing in a field of wildflowers as Vinnie and I crested the rise at Summerland to look into the blue glass of glaciers; the hushed intimacy as we stood among the tall pines waiting for our wedding ceremony to begin; holding my breath next to my cousin to watch the owl that was certainly a totem from her father.
Addition and subtraction.
I think of this simple equation, the 19 standing alone to the right of the equals sign, not as a weight, but as a buoy. It lifts me up above the waves for a bigger view. It reminds me to ask, in the words of Mary Oliver: what will I do with this one wild and precious life? And even more so, with this given moment, with this single day?
There is absolutely no amount of time that is guaranteed – that is the biggest lesson I have learned in these years. With that comes the recognition that I want to cherish every day, to savor its happening.
But it’s difficult for me, as it is for most of us, to live in the present. So I do what I can: breathing and noticing the moment, the day, the loved one, the opportunity, the beauty, the divine in all things. I remind myself to live right where I am, feeling the sun on my face, instead of standing numb while my mind swirls with thoughts of the future.
I make no long term bargains with myself: I will not work now in exchange for the uncertain promise of retirement years. I will not wait to live the life that is the best expression of me. I write no bucket lists. The only yearning I want to hearken to is for those moments and days right next to the moment and day that I’m in. I have no long range vision. I am as near-sighted as I can train myself to be.
This is not to say that I don’t have hopes and dreams. But I keep them on a short leash, putting them in a one to three year trajectory, rather than imagining my life 10 or 20 years from now. And I look for ways to brings those dreams into the day that I’m living, to make them part of the experience I get to taste and hold today.
The idea of 19 years motivates me in more than one way. To live in the present as deeply as I can, yes, and also to imagine my life outside the drawn boundary of 62 years old. What could my life be like if I outlive the length of my mom’s life? What might I want for myself?
A downside to this elegant equation is this: it provides me no answers. It cannot tell me how to live my life on the other side of loss. The simplicity of it can inspire me though – 19 years, after all, is made up of a long strand of moments and days.