I’ve been away from the blog for a few weeks because of an unexpected turn: my husband’s almost-84 year old mother was diagnosed with cancer and hospitalized. The end of her life came quickly, and I admired her willingness to let go. She was at peace and told my husband, “I’m ready to see what’s on the other side.” I hope I can be in the same place when it’s my turn.
My mother-in-law and I were never very close, so my role through this was to hold down the fort at home and offer as much love and support as I could to my husband. Since he was in Southern California, we spoke each night by phone, long conversations about the story that was unfolding, the history it invoked, and the future it implied. At one point he said, “This is a wake up call. It reminds me how precious life is, and that I need to live it fully.”
WAKE UP CALLS. I’VE HAD MY SHARE AND YOU PROBABLY HAVE TOO.
In that intense moment we get it. We understand the fleeting nature of human life. Suddenly all that’s unimportant is stripped away, leaving us with a particular kind of clarity mined from loss and grief. Years ago I read a description of this that seemed so profound that I memorized it. I can’t remember who wrote it, but she got it just right: “We lose people. We lose jobs. We lose dreams. And each time we feel the same pang. It’s as if the oldest pages of our scrapbook are slipping through our fingers in fine dusty irretrievable flakes.” To that I would add…In that instant when we experience the irretrievability of what has gone, we also glimpse the depth of our unlived lives.
And then, something happens. Regular life intervenes. The routine re-imposes itself upon us. The clock starts ticking again and we go back to the one-two of existence. And the suspended moment of the wake up call all but vanishes.
Well, then, how do you stay awake to a wake up call? How do you keep its newfound clarity alive? I’ve pondered this question for a long time. Many years ago I wrote about it in a newsletter, and referenced author Carol Pearson (Awakening the Heroes Within), who said, “We can learn to consult our deaths…rather than our fears and ambitions when making decisions.” Pearson further encourages us to ask, “If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you choose to do today?”
In the ensuing years I’ve learned that while compelling, this is a tremendously difficult question to ask myself every day. It feels unwieldy. Overwhelming. Big. Too big to take in each day. If I could embrace it I’m sure it would keep my wake up calls alive, but so far I haven’t been able to do that.
So I’ve been pondering a different version of the question. Why not start now, I thought, and make this easier? I’ve played with a few possibilities: If I knew I was going to die in ten years, what would I choose to do today? Or, If I knew I was going to die in one year, what would I choose to do today?
I’m circling around the ten year version of the question. Or maybe even a five year version. That could give me the right mix of breathing room and urgency that I’m looking for. And it feels like a good way to stay awake to my wake up calls.