I used to think I was lucky to grow up without grandparents.
I promise it didn’t start out that way. When I was in elementary school, I envied my friends who spent their Christmas break baking cookies and decorating gingerbread houses with their grandma, and Easter’s looking for pastel colored eggs with their grandpa. I often found myself profoundly jealous over not having grandparents to share with me the stories of their life — the stories of their hardships and what it took to overcome them — stories of trials turned to triumph. I spent a lot of time wishing I had a home away from home — grandparents to be my ears when I needed someone to listen or to offer me sage advice. Someone older and wiser to remind me that this too, shall pass. But when I got older and saw my friends reeling over the deaths of their grandparents, I dubbed myself lucky.
I say lucky loosely. Lucky, because for a long time, I was largely untouched by the heavy cloak of death. Lucky, because I never had to mourn the loss of a grandparent. Lucky, because it was four less people I would have to say goodbye to.
I don’t consider myself lucky anymore.
Before really understanding the permanence of death, I had a taste of what happens when you lose someone. I was eight when my aunt passed away from bone cancer. It was ugly and brutal. I struggle sometimes with the minor details — like how she felt when she was diagnosed; did she have any last wishes or regrets? Did she live a life she was proud of? Did she want more? But what I do remember is the quick and painful way she slipped away from us. How she was here one day — healthy, and happily feeding my then two-year-old brother cheesecake off her finger, and suddenly sick, frail, and then gone. All within the span of six months. And despite being old enough to have a general understanding of death, despite living just around the corner from her, despite watching this horrible disease take my beautiful aunt away from me, I never understood the weight of death until it came back to me at 19, and then at 20. And then over and over and over again.
I suppose that in comparison to many, I am still largely untouched by death. But death keeps making her way back into my life, and each time she visits, she steals a little bit of my heart with her.
Yesterday was the six year anniversary of the death of a dear childhood friend of mine.
Six years is a long time. Six years is more than half of my sister’s lifetime. Six years is the age of a first grader. Six years is how long it’s been since I was a college sophomore. Six years of grief, of growth, of change, of birthdays passing, of life. Six years, and the weight on my heart is still the same. Six years down, but a lifetime more to go. Yesterday was heavier than the last six years have been. Perhaps because the anniversary of Pat’s death fell on a Saturday — the same day he died, showing us that time still moves even when he doesn’t get to come along for the ride. Perhaps also because I found myself driving home from work on the parkway with the same urgency I had that day six years ago, when I drove home from my college down the parkway shortly after hearing about his accident. In a weird twist of deja vu, my heart was heavier as I remembered one of the sweetest men I’ve ever known. I think about him a lot. On a windy day, like the day of his funeral, I swear it’s him looking down on us and roughing us up. Reminding us that a little turbulence can’t ever hurt us. I think about him when I drive past his house. When I think about my first few years working at Auntie Anne’s. When I think about the icy Valentine’s Day we were both stuck working and spent the night making heart-shaped pretzels. When I think about being in elementary school and starting martial arts and him telling me how cool it was that I did Tae Kwon Do. Seriously, when you’re a tiny nine year old girl, nothing is cool about doing martial arts. Pat always reassured me. And even though I think about him all the time, and even though it’s been six years, it still seems unfathomable to me that he’s gone.
That’s the hardest part about death. That the earth still turns, and you’re still here, and the person you love is simply gone.
There is something so surreal about the concept that the people in our lives can just disappear. Like my neighbor — the healthiest, strongest, most physically fit man I’ve ever known — who was fighting with everything in him to beat his cancer. He was here one day, telling me to keep working hard at school and to, as soon as I got the chance, finally watch Groundhogs Day — a movie I’d promised I would watch when I was 15 years old. His illness claimed his body in the blink of an eye. One moment, he was here in his entirety. The next, he was hospitalized after having a stroke. And in the weeks between that stroke and his death, I watched the rapid transition and watched as his body grew tired from fighting.
I witnessed my neighbor’s fight. I can still feel the very moment I got the phone call telling me Pat died. I remember the agony of my aunt passing away — and yet the concept that death takes these people away from us permanently is still so hard for me to wrap my head around sometimes.
I still imagine that as life moves on, as the world turns and shifts and changes, as I change along with it, the people in my life will still be doing the same. That my aunt in Vietnam, who passed away last year, is still living her life and running her little convenience store. That on the next sunny day, I can look out my window and see my neighbor with his Red Sox baseball cap sitting on his lawn chair at the top of his driveway. That I can arrange for all of my old Auntie Anne’s coworkers to get together for drinks and that Pat would be sitting right along side us. That although we are apart, we are still living and growing together.
And then other days, I am so paralyzed by the transience of it all — often to the point of anger towards those who don’t realize the same. Some days, when I am scrolling through Facebook and reading complaint after complaint, or on days like yesterday, when I am reminded that this is it. This is all we get. Just this one shot at life. I want to shake the people complaining about non-important things. I want to scream from the rooftops, “Hey, this is all temporary. Don’t you realize that? In the grand scheme of things, your problems are so small. People lose who they love every single day. We can love with all our might, but in just the blink of an eye, it could all be gone.”
But I’ve never said any of that, because I would be a hypocrite for not living life the same way. For not seizing every single moment and making it all count. But I really, whole-heartedly, want to make this count.
I think the problem is that we’re waiting for this big awakening. We’re waiting for purpose. For meaning. For someone to kick us over and scream this is why you’re here. This is what you’re living for. And until then, we travel blindly on this winding road with little or no significance. But what if that epiphany never comes? Maybe, instead of wishing to live in these big moments and be these big people, we need to see what we have when we have it.
In the last year, I have been trying to live better. To do better. I’ve been trying to live fully and intentionally. But most importantly, I have been trying to be grateful for even the smallest of things. In 2014, I did a gratitude jar. I wrote down one “good thing” every single day and at the end of the year, I looked through fondly at some of the memories — spending the day in Atlantis, Bahamas, lazy snow days watching Netflix, getting a gift from a friend in the mail because I was having a rough time, spending my first Memorial Day Weekend not in retail with my friends at the racetrack, treating myself to a Starbucks Frappucino, getting out of work early.
When I think about making this all count, I think of only two things: gratitude and love. I think life begins and ends with love. And I think if you practice gratitude, if you make yourself aware of the little things, you’ll find that there is so much to love about this life — even in spite of all the bad things that often come our way.
When I am at the end of my life, whenever that time may be, I want it to be known that I loved as hard as I could. That’s what I need to remind myself when I feel my blood pressure raising over petty Facebook statuses and Tweets. When we are at the end of the road, that stuff won’t matter. No one will care about how much college loan debt you’re in, or how many bills you’ve paid for the month, or how stressed you were studying for that exam. At the end of all of this, two things will matter: gratitude and love.
Remember that. Practice that. Live in that.
“What are you going to do with your life?” In one way or another it seemed that people had been asking her this forever; teachers, her parents, friends at three in the morning, but the question had never seemed this pressing and still she was no nearer an answer… “Live each day as if it’s your last’, that was the conventional advice, but really, who had the energy for that? What if it rained or you felt a bit glandy? It just wasn’t practical. Better by far to be good and courageous and bold and to make difference. Not change the world exactly, but the bit around you. Cherish your friends, stay true to your principles, live passionately and fully and well. Experience new things. Love and be loved, if you ever get the chance.”
-David Nichols, “One Day“
The title of this post comes from lyrics of the song ‘View From Heaven‘ by Yellowcard.