Tuesday, December 30, 2014

“I grow old.. I grow old..."

I watched my son as he zoomed around the fellowship hall. He was flying high. Well, as high as a three-year old can get when he’s riding a tsunami-sized blood sugar spike from liberally doled out cookies and full-strength juice. I cringed. I was less concerned with the peace he might be disturbing and more worried about safety. You see, at our church we’ve got a lot of older folks, and I mean people who are well into their eighties and nineties. The intergenerational aspect is one of the things I love most about the place we’ve found, but it also means coming face-to-face quite often with the many ways that our bodies succumb to those currents of time. I tried, in the moment, to redirect my son and ask him to calm his body, but he’s the kind of kid who really needs quiet and stillness to process. He also needs to understand the reason behind the request. So I waited. And when I laid him down for a short nap that afternoon, I revisited the issue:
“Hey buddy, do you remember when you were running around and having so much fun at church?”
“Yeah, I do!” He giggled.
            “I love watching you have fun. But do you also remember that I asked you to slow down a little bit and make sure your body wasn’t bumping into other people?”
“Well the reason I asked you to do that is because we have a lot of people whose
bodies have gotten older and might not be as strong as they were. If you bumped into them zooming around so fast, they might fall down and break something…like an arm or a hip. Can you understand that?”
            “Yeah, I do.”
He was quiet for a few seconds as he continued to process this information, and then he asked, “mommy, are you very old?” He cupped my cheek with a tiny hand, caressing my face in that way that I’ve caressed his so many times.
“Well,” I laughed, “not yet, honey.”
“Yeah, not yet,” he said in his half-serious, half-amused way, “but one day you might be.”
One day, I might be old. It’s a notion that I hadn’t really considered. I’ve never really been a visionary. Sure, I make plans and work toward goals, but I don’t ever look toward the future in a “one day when” kind of way (hello, despair with a smile, here). Lying there beside him, at the end of another exhausting holiday season, I was suddenly enthralled with the idea that I might get old one day. I suppose it was especially revelatory because around this time of year I feel a deep-down-in-my-bones weariness that tricks me into thinking that I’m older than I am. This year, that was compounded by the weighty realization that my mother is no longer with us. I know, I know, this whole blog is more or less about that fact, but last year we were still reeling, still in a state of disbelief; I think I’ve reached a place of acceptance. I feel the fullness of her absence stretching itself out in me from limb-to-limb and settling down quietly in that place of real knowing. That is to say, that there are few things I know more fully right now than my mother’s absolute and irrevocable absence.
That certainty found me as I began the process of playing Santa for my son. At 11 pm on Christmas Eve, after six hours in the car, for a five-hour visit, with family one state away, I packed all of his trains and tracks into a bin so that I could erect a construction site in their place. And as I stared at the table emptied of all it's clutter, I was struck by the way that we typically move, almost imperceptibly, from one phase of life to another. We never really clear out the clutter completely, we sort of just shuffle through it. New things make their way onto the table while, hopefully, old things find their way off of it and before we know it, we’ve transitioned into something different. So there was something jarring about the table’s absolute barrenness.
The past and present coalesced momentarily on the surface of that table through that telescopic lens of my mother’s absence. She bought the table for my son’s first birthday “because,” she said, “it was something that would grow with him for awhile.” And it has. It served, first, as a supportive object: he pulled up and walked around it, beaming at his newfound dexterity and independence. Then it became a catchall for whatever toys happened to be in favor at the moment. Eventually, we laid tracks and rolled trains. We’ve spent incalculable hours around that table over the past two years, and in that time he has grown inches, acquired language, discovered those first inklings of interest and passion, skyped grandparents, and daydreamed about whatever it is that toddlers daydream about. We’ve bumped our shins and stubbed our toes on it. We’ve found joy and frustration in equal parts at that table. In hindsight, it was both utterly remarkable and categorically mundane in its everydayness; we barely noticed the way that we moved from phase to phase.
That table has been, in all the myriad ways we might use this phrase, a transitional object. It was the first and last tangible gift that my mother gave to us, and it signified so much more than a space for play. Bennett and I have both found ourselves in the four corners of that table—him as an individual with interests apart from me and myself as a mother and a woman apart from my mother's understandings of those things.  I realized, as I placed the tiny orange cones around the table’s perimeter and poured the rice into the plastic bin, that this newest phase, the things that I was in the process of laying down and the things I might later remove were things that she would never know. And when the moment righted itself and time resumed, I felt the shift inside me in the way that you might feel a bone popping back into place—my mother was thrust into the past and I was firmly relocated in the present, in that space of endless transition that we claim for the living.
It’s always around this season of Epiphany that we begin to throw those tired phrases around. You know the ones I mean—“carpe diem!” or “Live each day like it’s your last!” We make promises to ourselves and to others about the things that we’ll change or that we’ll endeavor to do. But this year, I’m not doing any of that. I won’t feel harried or hurried to fit it all in, to cross things off the bucket list, to know where I’m headed or what I want, to be fully actualized (whatever the heck that means), to unburden myself of all the things that weigh me down, etc. Nope, I won’t live with the scarcity of time biting at my heels. I’m going to live as if, one day, I might be old. I’m going to live slow and sure and steady, for the long haul rather than the sprint. My mother didn’t have time to grow old; she died at 58. But even then, as she was dying, it wasn’t the things she hadn’t done that she regretted. If anything, it was having done too much. She sat in my living room for weeks just looking out the window and she said, as I hovered anxiously, “I don’t think I’ve ever had time to just sit here like this.” If I live to be 65 (which, for the record, isn’t very old at all), I will have grown older than my mother, and I will have lived longer without her than with her. Certainly I hope to have done some things along the way, but I also hope that I will have taken the time to clear off the table completely, to bask in the stillness and emptiness that can be found between things. So long as there are transitions to be had, there is new space to be remade into almost anything we can imagine. 


  1. between warrior and wise person, I prefer the latter. To be - much more than to do. I spent my seven times seven years hard at work - to do / doing.

    1. Indeed. So often, "to be" is greater than "to do." It makes space for others and for the kind of listening that only happens when we're still. Thanks for reading.