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Friday, April 17, 2015

Fragile

When I was young I never thought of death. Neither did I think of separations, or goodbyes. In fact, such things were completely foreign to me. I'd never known a goodbye to last longer than a week, save a few relatives that I did not know very well, and I'd never tasted death in any close form.

That all changed about 10 years ago.

We'd had a family friend who'd passed away before that point, but I'd been very young so I hadn't fully understood. We'd also lost a cat at that point, but again, I was too young to fully comprehend the meaning of it.

10 years ago my step-great grandmother, Doris, passed away. She had been battling with cancer, lung cancer to be specific, for some time. We all begged her to stop smoking, but she was stubborn. She would scoff at us and say "I'll smoke until the day I die."

And she did.

I don't remember much about how I felt when they told me she'd died, but I don't think I cried. I was just confused. I do remember well when we visited the funeral home. It was dark, and everything was colored in gold and dark burgundies. It was stuffy, outdated, and I hated it. I was bored and I just wanted to play with my cousins whom I saw only a few times a year. When they finally let us into the room where her body was kept, I still didn't cry. I was overwhelmed by the massive amounts of flowers, unknown relatives, and the large casket that loomed ominously at the front of the room. They quickly sat us all down and a heavy man with a beard led us in a few hymns, and said a few words about life after death. After that it was a flurry of relatives trying to reach the casket to pay respects, while simultaneously trying to "catch up" with our family. Somehow I reached the casket quicker than most.

I remember approaching it cautiously, unaware of what I would see. My cousin was openly weeping at this point, along with most of my aunts. However, Doris looked fine. In fact, she looked in death just as she had in life. I was still confused.

I remember touching her cheek, and listening to people around me crying, and something inside of me snapped. I started to weep as well, although I still didn't fully understand. But I understood enough to realize I wouldn't see her again.

I quickly recovered from the tears however, and spent the rest of my time meeting my Great Aunt Chris, who sat with me and assured me that I was not the only one with bad ankles, that there was no need to be insecure about them, and told me funny stories from when she was a child. And although I still didn't understand how fragile life was, I had begun to gain the head knowledge.

I think I fully began to understand over the course of the next few Easter Sundays.

You see, Grandma Doris was an amazing cook. She made the best food I'd ever had in my life. To this day there is nothing that will ever compare with her Easter and Christmas dinners. And each year on Easter that side of the family would gather together to eat. All of us, blood relatives and step relatives alike, would eat and visit together on that one day of the year at Grandma Doris' insistence. But after her death, those Easter dinners stopped happening. We mostly had Easter at our own houses from then on.

On one of those Easter Sundays I realized that we would never have a meal like that all together ever again, and I cried.

I still miss those Easter meals. Despite the issues in my family we would take that one day to set them aside and catch up with each other. I miss sitting at their large dining room table, and listening to the adults talk. (I desperately wanted to sit with the adults from a young age, and they would humor me seeing as I have always been mature, as long as I kept relatively quiet.) I miss seeing my step-aunts, and step-cousins. (I suppose Jolie is probably married by now, as she was significantly older than me.) I miss being given one of those awful tasting "soda pop" candy drinks in the plastic bottles. (Grandma Doris always said it was a special treat. And even though it tasted disgusting all of the kids would happily take one.) I miss those delicious biscuits that Mom would only let me eat a few of. (Sometimes others would sneak me an extra one without telling her. In retrospect, I really didn't need that many.)

When I thought of all those things, and that they would never happen again, I began to understand the fragile state of life. At that point, it terrified me. I would avoid thinking about death at all costs. I didn't want to know what happened when you died, or after you died. I didn't want to think about the ways people died. I didn't want anything to do with any of it.

It doesn't frighten me now. (Or at least, it doesn't frighten me as often.) And I don't dwell on the thought much, and if I do it's in a wistful kind of way. More melancholy than sad.

Today, I took a ride in my Great Aunt's red convertible mustang. It's my dream car, and the weather was beautiful, so she took me for a ride to Starbucks for a Frappe. We drove through her neighborhood with the top down looking at the flowering trees, and enjoying the sunshine.

I had just visited with my Great Grandpa (we call him Pap) earlier that day. He's getting older, and he often forgets things. He's crotchety, and has that stubborn Irish streak in him, but I still love him dearly. I often think of him in my mind as a grumpy old teddy bear. Despite the fact that he only lives a few hours away, we hardly ever see him. I had sat at his table and listened to him repeat the same stories two times each (at least). I had watched him show us papers telling of how he would win big money in a giveaway and how he would buy a new truck with that money he was so sure would come in this Wednesday. ("You'll see!" He said. "I'll buy that truck with the money and drive down to see you!".) I had fixed his computer for the thousandth time, because he always seems to lose the bookmarks my Grandpa sets up for him. And he had taken us to the mausoleum where my step-aunts had finally decided to place my Grandma Doris' ashes. And as I looked at the picture of her in her kitchen they had placed in the box, I felt the familiar ache of missing her. She wasn't perfect, but I did love her.

Afterwards, riding in my Aunt's convertible, I realized (not for the first time) that he wouldn't be around much longer. And while my Great Aunts and my Grandma see fit to complain about his forgetfulness, and how he can't manage his money, all I can think about is how few his years left are.

Life is short.

If you have a perfect life, and live to 100, that's still such a short amount of time in the grand scheme of things. But not everyone is blessed to live that long.

A girl in my town died in a car crash a few weeks ago. She was around eighteen.

My Great Aunt Nancy died when she was in her late twenties, early thirties. She was overseas, had just had a baby, and then died suddenly of an asthma attack. I never got to know her.

My real great Grandma, ironically also named Doris, died at age 37 of breast cancer. I never knew her either, and my mom knew her only for a short time.

My friend's mother miscarried a baby boy, even though she was far enough along to have picked a name for him.

We don't have much time on this earth, so my philosophy is this:

Make the most of your time.

Meet as many people as you can, and love as many people as you can. Call that relative you've been meaning to call for ages. Visit that place you've always wanted to go. Learn as much as you can, about life, love, God; anything really. Try that new food. Read that book that's been sitting on your shelf collecting dust. And most importantly, don't waste the opportunities God has given you.

Live out the words of Erma Bombeck. "When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me'."

You only get one chance, so be joyful, soak everything in, forgive and let go, love whomever you can, and don't worry what tomorrow will bring, because tomorrow has enough toubles of it's own. (Mathew 6:34)

I think tomorrow I'll walk in my neighborhood and smell the flowers. Then maybe I'll write those letters to my pen pals I've been putting off. I need to have a long talk with God too. I haven't any time to waste, and neither do you.

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