Some people cling to life like a scab clings, by mere threads, to an old wound. And some hold fast to every moment grabbing celebrations, laughter, moonlit nights, magnificent meals, the here of the sun, the now of friends. I used to shake my head, grumbling that my daughter was living like she had only an hour left. Then she died. “How will I live the rest of my life?” I wondered. It’s a good question to ask periodically.
Four years later I’m still aware of my season of hailstorms, the two-month period from my daughter’s deathday on March 4 to Mothers’ Day. In between those dates fall my birthday and Marika’s, the first day of spring, Easter and Passover. All are opportunities to wallow in misery and close off the world. Brain nausea sets in every year as I try to sort out what this deathday really means and how I should commemorate it. What keeps coming up is my Aunt Bertha. The aunt I adored as a child lost her husband on her birthday over fifty years ago. She kept to herself for over half a century, feeding on little other than her immense sorrow. So I have a familial model for how to live in grief. Only, that is not living; it is dying a very slow death.
I used to wonder, no, to be honest it used to bug me: how come she got to live? As much as I loved my aunt, her heart was dead and buried with her husband long ago. Why was she still schlepping around in her mid-nineties while Marika didn’t even get to see twenty-one?
Last week, in a rainstorm, we buried my Aunt Bertha in a cemetery in New Jersey, next to her husband. Nine of us huddled under umbrellas, taking turns shoveling rich red soil onto the lowered coffin. The ceremony lasted about fifteen minutes. And then we climbed into our seven cars and went home.
For me it was a five-hour ride. I thought of how, when I was a kid, I was afraid to use telephones except to call my Aunt Bertha. I remembered the jewelry she used to give me, visiting her in Brooklyn, and the candy-salesman husband who made her smile. She bought me my first camera.
The rainstorm followed me back to Ithaca. When I got home, clumps of soil still clung to my black boots, rich and red.
What does a life well lived mean to you?