Maybe it’s because I’m young(ish) or because I’ve been fortunate to have been largely untouched by it, but death isn’t something I spend a lot of time thinking about. In a half-hearted, off-handed way, I’d always figured that death should be left to the dying.
During my junior year in high school, a friend passed away from leukemia. My memories of him were of speech and debate and late night AIM conversations about college (he had been planning on going to UCLA and thought that I should do the same) and boys (he was convinced that I had a crush on a friend of his). After his diagnosis, we would spend our time together playing Super Smash Brothers, eating lasagna, and watching Reservoir Dogs. I’d bring him my mother’s banana bread and calla lilies from our garden, which — his mother was heartbreakingly apologetic — had to be exiled for carrying fungal spores that could cause infection. Still, apart from his musing on the impossibility of heaven, our conversations seldom touched death. And, even as I unabashedly cried on the shoulder of my first semi-boyfriend at the funeral, the back of my mind was looking forward — to homework and exams, college decisions and prom, to life and living.
My maternal grandmother passed away this week. Separated by land and water, the last time I saw her was almost three years ago. It was a difficult reunion. My maternal grandfather — tall and handsome, a ping pong champion and adored college professor full of lively anecdotes and thoughtful parables — has been bedridden with Parkinson’s for several years now. During my visit, my cousin and I climbed onto his bed, hugged him on both sides, and wordlessly cried, for him as much as for ourselves. She later confessed to me that she dreaded visiting our grandparents because the heartache felt unbearable, like it could break her apart, and she was solemn, alone, helpless in the face of it. She hated to see them as they were now; she wanted to remember them as they once were.
The last time I spoke to my grandma on the phone, she confided that she’d been feeling lonely and asked that I call her more. It was an unkept promise; she was hospitalized in the ICU two months later.
Despite, or perhaps because of, all of society’s reminders, I’m not sure I fully understand or appreciate that life is precious, not least because it’s temporary. To me, there is still something vaguely surreal about the concept that the people in our lives can just disappear, mid-sentence. Like my cousin, I can’t let go of my freeze frames of how things were, have always been. I believed that our lives would just keep on keeping on — that my grandmother, who loved to espouse the nutritional benefits of mushrooms and whose faith encompassed both Buddhist and Christian values, would be there, sitting Indian style, eating sunflower seeds. I couldn’t imagine a world without that, without her. As the earth turned, she would be there and I would be here, turning along with it, apart but together.
Even as living changes us, we believe that what we are now is what we are going to be. On occasion — perhaps while reminiscing over cocktails with friends you’ve known since before you knew the word ‘cocktail’ or as you leaf through old photos and birthday cards during a Sunday housecleaning — you pause, look around, and think to yourself: “how the time flies,” or some variation thereof.
But, day in and day out, living becomes a hum in the background. If we listen closely, carefully, we might be able to decipher meaning or message in the white noise. Instead, we drift onwards with the current. We don’t notice that this is water.
And so, here I am, thinking about death. Or, more specifically, about how to live so that death becomes just a triviality of life, how to live so that every day — every stupidly insignificant, completely ordinary day — is fully and consciously felt. To me, that life is one that is lived with awareness, one in which every decision in every day comes from purpose and thought, not complacency and autopilot. It’s a life that chooses meaning. And the knowledge that one day it will all cease to be — perhaps abruptly like clicking off the television or perhaps gradually in an old movie’s fade to black — will in no way take away from a life that is well lived. It is knowing that this is it. This is all we get. And it can be more than enough, if you make it so.
In life, my grandmother had no shortage of wisdom — keep your parents grounded in times of stress; take care of your brother, but not so much that he doesn’t learn to take care of himself; look first for a good heart, one that’s (almost) as good as your grandfather’s. I spent the first evening without my grandmother in my world thinking about whether I was making her proud, how I could make her prouder. For me, this is how to begin. Remember. Remember what she knew was good and right and true. And, when the choice comes — as it will, as it does, every day — choose to remember.