It is not a very merry Christmas when you find yourself writing a half dozen condolence notes before you get around to writing notes of thanks. That’s not entirely true, of course, we *did* have a merry Christmas especially because the entire family gathered together in the mountains. And there was unbridled joy Christmas morning as our toddler grandsons discovered Santa’s magic.
But the Christmas cards this year -- oh, the Christmas cards! Midst the many letters extolling multi-generational achievements and strenuous travel (don’t you know?) came several with sobering news of untimely deaths. Surprising losses all of them because, with the exception of one friend’s 97 year-old mother, these were friends, peers and classmates, people “our age,” and somehow I had believed this wasn’t supposed to happen. Weren’t we still invincible? Exercising? Eating healthy? What about that popular urban legend that if you get to 65 healthy, you’ll probably make it to 90 or 100?
What happened was cancer for the most part -- brain, pancreatic, lung, renal and breast -- and, in one case, an infection that turned lethal. No warnings, no reasons, just extraordinarily bad luck that caused a half dozen really good people to leave the earth this fall and winter, 20 or 30 years earlier than expected. Earlier than they expected, I’m sure; earlier than their widows expected, I know (they said so); and earlier than I expected. Even earlier than [recent studies] project.
After the first few reports came in with the Christmas mail, I bargained with each new batch of cards as I opened them. *“Please write about your brilliant children and talented grandchildren, continuing successes in your career and meaningful volunteer work and climbing Kilimanjaro and how you know how blessed you are, please, go ahead, do it; just don’t tell me anyone else has died!”* But the bad news persisted; another longtime friend died New Year’s Day and his wife, who writes one of the most intriguing missives at Christmastime, replete with impassioned political commentary, recommended books and movies and humorous stream-of-conscious vignettes about her grandsons, instead sent a devastating email saying so.
These are friends from high school, college, grad school, first jobs, the apartment building we lived in when we were first married, from New York, New Jersey, Portland and Texas, people we always meant to spend more time with, see when next we traveled west or east or through their neighborhood, friends we’ll now never see again. In a very real sense their loss diminishes all of us, and not simply because there are several fewer really good people walking this earth (though that is a huge consideration). The rest of us are feeling more vulnerable now -- older, weaker, a little more afraid, a lot more inclined to worry through symptoms we might otherwise have dismissed -- and more painfully aware than ever before that Life’s end-game can happen anytime -- and not just to our parents any longer, but to us.
I remember asking my mother how my 80-plus year-old grandmother was holding up when her friends started dying off in fairly rapid succession. My mother, never one to dwell on sad facts (or let anyone else do so), reported that Grandma seemed to be just fine. “She’s happy she’s still standing,” is what she said. I’m pretty sure that was my mother’s take and not my grandmother’s; it offended me then and it does now, too.
But let’s be honest, there is an “all about me” factor: No matter how profoundly sad I am to have lost these friends, no matter how visceral my sympathy for the widows (“I can’t imagine!” one could write, and many do, but, it’s not true; I *can* imagine losing my spouse and I see only darkness, absolute loneliness, hell), I write my notes and then try to move on to that realm of so-called healthy denial. It wasn’t my spouse; it wasn’t me; we are truly lucky to be alive, even likely to stay that way for a while.
What comes next is the feeling I am somehow responsible for redeeming these dead souls in some way to make up for my good fortune. So for a while I feel compelled to make the most of my next 20 or 30 years, live each day fully (hell, make it each hour!), age with grace and purpose, maybe even take one of those damn hiking, climbing, adventure or third-world trips. It is a heavy burden, too heavy really. And actually not very helpful and a bit grandiose, as if I should now, single-handedly, find the cure for cancer or cleanse the environment of the toxins that might have caused it. Depressing, too, because I will never measure up to the fantasy.
So I move on, finally, and am slowly coming to believe all I am truly called to do is *live* my life -- because I have it to live. It’s OK. I can keep on keeping on -- loving children and grandchildren and spouse and friends, enjoying books and writing, politics and news, bridge and golf (and really nice hotels), and contining to send cards and notes that say *Merry* Christmas and *Happy* Birthday with all the sincerity, love, and hope I can muster . . . at our age.
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