Friday, January 21, 2005

Time Was on My Side

I remember, as a child, my mom saying something to me about how she read the obituaries. It was something wry. Children, even compulsive maniacal readers like I was, don't read the obituaries. They are so meaningless.

At some point, I ceased to be a child. I don't know how long I've been reading see how old they are when they die, see if it will say what they died of, see if it's anyone I know or have ever heard of, and lately, see how many years separate their year of birth and mine. That started as seeing how close the deceased's year of birth was to my parents'. Eventually, there's a shift in the statistics. There was for me.

Today I was reading Anthony Lane's review of Neverland in The New Yorker (I'm a bit behind in my NYers). He mentions that J.M. Barrie was born in 1860 and died in 1937. "Similar to me," I thought. I was born in 1959. And then, before I could stop myself, I thought, "2037." I had to put down the magazine and read no further. I didn't want to do the 2037 minus 2005 math, but it happened anyway.

This is a new place. Newish, because one doesn't just pass through a portal and bingo here one is. It's more of a tunnelish sortuvan effect. Not enclosed like that, just, it's gradual. Like when a stream becomes a creek becomes a river...not all of those transitions are obvious. And of course it's understandable that I'm going off digressing about transititions. This new place is one where I finally truly get it that death is part of the deal. Non negotiable. No exemptions.

Of course I've known it all along. Sooner than many, since I my sister died when I was but four. But knowing it and getting it are not all and the same. I think turning 45 may have been something of a milestone. I guess I really am middle-aged now. Whether I am in the "do I fit the stereotype of a middle-aged woman" sense, I don't know, but mathematically, I'd say this is the middle decade. I guess that's what I hope.

As a kid, like all kids, I imagined the future. What would I be when I grew up? I would never marry or have kids, although I also imagined what kind of a mom I would be. I would be a writer or a teacher, although I didn't know what being a writer meant, except that you were very interesting and may appear on talkshows. As I got older, 10, 13, 16, these thoughts took on a scary dimension. I'd have bills. I imagined that I would have kids and they'd hate me and boss me around. I'd have to do what I was supposed to do whether I felt like it or not. And I could stay up as late as I wanted and eat whatever I liked. It was exciting and scary to think about.

Thinking about "how will I die?" is taking up the same brain cells that thinking about "what will I be when I grow up?" used to use.

I'm sure I'd feel differently about death if I didn't have kids. (Just like I used to feel differently about aging until I married a Younger Man.) My view of death completely transformed overnight when I became a mother. My childhood view of death, formed when my sister died, had stood me in good stead until then. I believed that death was not such a bad thing. I noticed that my dead sister was not suffering, but all of us left were. Often as I went through life, I thought how lucky she was to have missed this disappointment or that heartbreak or these humiliations or those dilemmas. There was no reason for life to be long. Just enjoy it as well as you can, and be glad to be out of it when you go.

Not so once I held my baby in my arms. I had inklings of the change while I was pregnant -- I dimly realized that all the anxiety about getting through those nine months with a healthy baby at the other end wasn't going to end with that healthy baby. I'd need to keep her healthy after that. It wasn't possible for me then to imagine how long "after that" could mean. I knew I couldn't really even imagine it. Then, once I held her, I felt it. No body in that room was permitted to die. I would kick anyone's ass who tried. The mission was crystal clear to every cell in my body: we've all got to get very very old. Especially this baby. And I've got to be there to make sure she does it. LIFE! I wanted to eat it have it own it.

Someone a few years before, hearing my laissez-faire few of life had said, "One day something will happen to Ellen and she'll change. She'll start to love life." I only thought, this guy doesn't understand me, I do love life. In fact, I did love it more before I began to fear death.

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