By the time you get to 60 or so, you’ve begun to push away the small sorrows of the secret dreams you’re not going to get to in this lifetime. Things you’ve probably never mentioned to anybody but have been a lovely possibility, something the future could hold if things work out. To name a few of mine: hang gliding; raising German Shepherd puppies or maybe golden labs; living in an artists’ commune in Italy; living alone in a cottage in Maui where I leave footprints in the sand every morning before I settle down to write Something Meaningful; learning Spanish so I’m actually fluent, and also Tibetan, and also German so I can read Rilke in the original. And while we are at it, Classical Persian so I can read Rumi without having to go through translators. And did I mention having a baby? Or just grandchildren?
These little losses—I’m starting with the easy ones so I don’t leap up and suddenly push out the mourners who have been standing silently in my living room because I’ve just realized that I need to clean out the garage or do my taxes. The little losses of hopes and dreams are like small candles going out, one by one. You don’t notice them much.
Next (not really Next in the sense of how you feel them but Next in the sense that I am ready to talk about them) come the actual things you can’t do or aren’t so good at anymore. Like remembering people’s names. That’s one of the first and it comes in your 50’s and by the time you’re in your 60’s you hardly bother about it.
(I hope you’re not getting depressed. Actually, I’m feeling a lot better, just naming these shadows instead of sensing them waiting out on the porch. If it doesn’t sound too bossy, you might want to do this too — scribble down somewhere the wild dreams and small losses that you’ve been pushing out of your awareness.)
Are you noticing how long it is taking me to get on with Next?
Okay, besides forgetting names that just about everybody does, there are the other actual losses of capacities and resources. For example, I can’t run anymore. At least not more than a mile and even that is probably stupid because my knees are doing the best they can, and definitely don’t need any more pounding. And also it looks like I won’t be swept into the helpless delicious crazed liquid fire that burned down the length of me every time my beloved … you get the idea. And other things that I can’t be bothered itemizing because you have your own and can perfectly well do this yourself.
I want to get to the crowd of shadows who were standing behind the others and have now shuffled into my living room and are lounging on the big chintz sofa and a couple of chairs they’ve pulled in from the dining room. They are silent for a long time, letting the little ones chatter away about what is missing now and wrinkles and how my right hand is just not as strong as it used to be and should I keep coloring my hair because it’s awfully expensive to keep that up but on the other hand I like having red hair.
The silent ones are about endings.
I have to slow down now.
From our earliest years, there are endings.
I thought the dove was mine.
I thought our tender feeding routine with her sipping from the eye dropper and me waiting till she was ready for another swallow was how things would be between us. Every day since I found her we’d done this together and she was looking better, her feathers shinier and eyes sharper, more interested. So we went up to the second story deck that looked out over the valley, me carrying her cage and her turning her neck around in the bright, cold air. I opened the cage door in case she wanted to venture out a bit. Tentatively she stepped onto the edge of the open door and then, oh! Arced into the clear December sky without a backward glance.
At twenty two
I trusted my friendship with Mutombo without giving it a thought.
When he went home to Ghana for the summer after our first year of graduate school, we hugged goodbye lightly. He didn’t write, which was odd because he said he would. By late September after we’d had our first frost and the maples were curling their yellow and red droppings over the sidewalks, the wind started cutting hard off the lake. I figured it was time to head over to the Math Department and find out where he was. I asked a woman who was typing in one of the offices. He died, she said. One of those African diseases. Sorry. You were friends, weren’t you?
We say those vows, Love, honor and cherish, and we mean it completely. I’m sure we do, almost every one of us. If you marry before you’re sixty, the chance you’ll divorce—not just separate, actually go through the bloody legal process of divorcing—is 50%.
That statistic tells nothing except that we’re not alone when what we intended would last forever shrivels like those maple leaves after the first frost. And nobody warns you. Or more honestly, maybe warnings are blaring into both ears but it doesn’t matter because you believe that the love you have will stay just as it is in the beginning and maybe even get sweeter and richer once the kids come. That it will stay.
And this is not to mention the milder endings like graduations where the friends who were with you every day disperse like dandelion fluff in a high wind, some landing nearby and others just disappearing. Or maybe you’re the one who disappears, striding into your new life without even pausing to glance around at who and what you’re leaving behind.
The endings that come before we grow old tend to shock us. We don’t expect them, never mind what the statistics say about how long marriages last or the incidence of illnesses and death in midlife. We don’t expect them to happen to us. At least if we live in the West, if we haven’t got caught in the gang wars or drug and alcohol addictions, if we don’t have a family DNA line of heart disease or cancer, if we have missed the early devastation of the AIDS epidemic. If we slip by all those ifs, we expect, as the poet W.S. Merwin puts it, that what we know is only a moment of what is ours and will stay. We expect it will stay and we will have time for what we haven’t said or given or loved enough.
By the time we get to about 60, endings … how do you finish such a sentence?
It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Try it …. how would you tell what endings are like at this time in your life? Endings are…
Whenever I try this, it sounds pompous. So I wonder: What if there were a hidden way of beginning, just whispering or maybe scratching the words into the dirt in my backyard? As I imagine this, I feel myself being drawn toward an inner silence, soft and expansive. A stillness seems to invite me to rest and listen.
Is this how it happens now? A different kind of relationship to endings as I near the time in my life of my own ending and that of my friends? It seems obvious, as I reflect on it, that endings and losses take on a different meaning as I open to the endings that will come with death. The normalcy of death, the death I can expect to come in ten years, or maybe fifteen, brings an awareness of endings that no longer come as shocks but as something in the natural order of things. This normalcy, this natural order happening to me and to my beloved Paul and my friends calls me to a different kind of reflection about almost everything: who I think I am, what I believe matters, and how I want to live.
So as I turn my gaze towards endings, a sense of being hidden and silent comes near. Intimate. Wordless.
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