When your worst nightmare comes to pass a second time, a bizarre numbness sets in to keep you alive. When my daughter Bronwyn died, six years after her sister’s death, I simply went underground and for two months did nothing but try to live through it. I couldn’t write or even talk about my loss, couldn’t find sense in her journey, couldn’t do anything to make myself understand how both my daughters could be gone. I knew by then that time doesn’t heal all wounds, that the sorrows of losing those you love are always just a thought away, and that much to your astonishment, “life goes on,” as Edna St. Vincent Millay said, “I forget just why.” And you must find a way to go on, too.
I’ve seen the same “endurance is the only option” syndrome in those who face recurrent illness, recurrent tragedy, relentless poverty. It must be what victims feel when the torturer returns to their cell the day after they’ve given up all hope of mercy. The desperate, lonely inevitability of facing the unthinkable. People say you must have been prepared. What preparation could you possibly make for loss, you wonder, except to close your heart to feeling or remorse.
When your children and your parents are gone, I wonder if there is anyone left to remember the real truth of who you were, once. The young, naïve innocent you, lacking in wisdom, filled with exuberance and that gorgeous unmitigated hope that dies with the experience of time. My sister, and my daughter, Dakota, perhaps, but each set of memories is viewed through a different lens, and much is lost to time… perhaps only the Feather of Ma-at in the Scales of Tahuti can judge the truth of a soul’s journey. “God be with the days when I was young,” my father used to say. Is it possible that now only God remembers who I was then?
Winds of the old days blow through me, memories tumbling ass-over-teakettle into the inexorable river of time. I remember rosy-cheeked child faces in a thousand flashes of light. The tiny basement apartment where we giggled over people passing by, whom we knew only from the knees down. The trilling laughter of the Kips Bay playground, noisy, giggle-filled and full of futures that will never be. The ghastly bronze statue in the middle of the Dog Patch, we dubbed Winged Poo. Snapshot summers in a cottage in Maine, warm blueberry muffins oozing butter in a brown paper bag from the muffin lady. The green shag carpet and white wicker furniture that were all I could afford, and that turned our living room to a perpetual garden.
The lovers, the strangers, the husbands, the teachers, the friends, all live within me now, the inexorable knowledge of what life can hold, both a precious gift and a terrible truth, all of which I wish I could hand to Dakota on a silver plate, to save her the painful lessons of life, or the hardships of the climb up the mountain’s face. At the same time, I know the mountain climb is all there is, and there are no safe routes, no shortcuts, no options but to make your own climb, to grow strong or die in the climbing, and to see at the summit what you were meant to see.
I look around me in wonder at what comes next.
Possibilities are different at 60 than at 30. They’re less fearsome, less life-and-death critical to your brood, less dense with life-long consequences. And life-long is considerably shorter than it used to be. My Permanent Record is so lengthy and splotched now, perhaps even the Recording Angel will have trouble keeping track.
I’m stunned by old age creeping in on stealthy feet. I can tell how far down the road I’ve already traveled because people have begun telling me new hairdo’s are youthful, men are slower to help me to my chair and I feel less urgency about finding answers to the long list of questions I’ve been saving up for a final conversation with God. I also have no clue who that old woman is who stares back from the mirror, at a spirit that isn’t a day over 40.
I find I graciously allow myself eccentricities that I would have thought improper while young: like admitting I thought Cold Mountain unreadable, and saying out loud that I never intend to learn to play tennis. The guitar, untouched for 30 years, on the other hand, still calls to me from the corner where it sits, like Eugene Fields’ Little Drummer Boy, sturdy and staunch, awaiting the touch of a hand. Maybe that’s a good sign.
I no longer wonder if with sufficient diet and exercise I could look like Charlize Theron, but rather, whether with sufficient intellectual and emotional development I could one day look as interesting as Georgia O’Keefe or Isak Dinesen in their old age.
Will I live to scale a few more mountains? I hope so, I’m getting better at it.
From the top of the final mountain, I wonder if I will finally see clearly the shattering Light in which I have danced for a lifetime…battered this way and that by the winds of experience, tempered by the ephemeral touch of those who have danced with me a while, expanded by love, transformed by loss, distracted by the dizzying adventure of it all, yet always, always, inexorably in motion toward a distant summit that calls to me, calls to me.
I’ve lived life strangely: autumn first, when I was young, then spring and summer, and I, too busy staying alive and caring for my children, to pay close attention to the change of seasons.
Why should I fear the winter? It’s always been my favorite season.
© Cathy Cash Spellman/The Wild Harp & Co. Inc 2011