How do we know if it’s living?
A few weeks ago, after he had spent an afternoon with me at my office, Carlos and I stepped off the curb and cut a diagonal across the parking lot towards my car.
“Mama? What’s trees–living or non-living?”
“What do you think?”
“What tells you that they’re living?”
“Trees can grow. They drink water and eat…what trees eat?”
“Um…They absorb some nutrients from the ground through their roots. And I guess you could say they eat sunshine–they can turn it into energy like you turn food into energy.”
I pointed to a sleek gray Tesla parked in the spot reserved for the radiation oncologist. “What about a car? It drinks gas and it can move around. Living or non-living?”
He giggled. “Cars are non-living.” Before I could ask him, Carlos asked, “Why cars non-living?”
“They can’t grow or change or make more cars.”
He clambered up into his car seat and while I fixed the tangled straps he pulled his prized rocks out of the cup holder.
“Rocks are non-living.”
“Exactly. They don’t eat or grow or change.”
“There are fwee types of rocks,” he told me. “Igmeous, selementary, and mectamorphic.”
“Good job, bud.”
I love kindergarten science.
The Thin and Sudden Line Between
A few hours after Carlos and I talked about living and non-living in the hospital parking lot, I got word from my cousin that her mother was going into hospice care. Aunt Dixie, who baked the prettiest pink cake that ever was, had been sick for over a year with a lung infection that just wouldn’t give in. But even as sick as she was for as long as she was, she was still 100% living. I pictured the delicate green chair that she had been sitting in on Christmas Eve. Everything else in that room is the same, the chair waits for her, but she is gone. That’s the way it goes–we’re absolutely alive and suddenly we are absolutely not.
I was there when Richard slipped across that profound line between living and non-living. When I leaned over him to check his oxygen cannula, he was living. The strange clatter of his ragged breath disappeared into the air between us. I straightened the clear plastic tube under his nose to make sure he was getting all he needed. Was it the silence or the stillness that I noticed first? He took no next breath.
I think now about that first blustery day when we met on the side of the highway, the first time we stood close to each other and our breath mingled in the living air. Saying hello, and help, and thank you for the first time. I value every breath from that first March day to the last March day. He was 100% living and NEVER gave up. I suppose that’s why, even after 10 months of watching cancer eat away at him cell by cell, the moment when he slipped across that thin line took my breath away.
Some Things, Say The Wise Ones
By Mary Oliver
Some things, say the wise ones who know everything,
are not living. I say,
You live your life your way and leave me alone.
I have talked with the faint clouds in the sky when they
are afraid of being behind; I have said, Hurry, hurry!
and they have said, Thank you, we are hurrying.
About cows, and starfish, and roses there is no
argument. They die, after all.
But water is a question, so many living things in it,
but what is it itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming
generosity, how can they write you out?
As I think this I am sitting on the sand beside
the harbor. I am holding in my hand
small pieces of granite, pyrite, schist.
Each one, just now, so thoroughly asleep.
The last trip Richard and I took together was to Maine. We sat beside a harbor like the one Mary Oliver captured in this poem. He ate a cinnamon roll that was bigger than his head. I took a picture of our feet with the boats as a background. Richard had burned with a strange and painful fever the night before, but that morning we were 100% living.
At a beach made of smooth pink stones in Acadia National Park, I slipped two small rocks into my pocket. All these years later, those rocks are asleep upstairs in a bowl on the book shelf. A pair of ancient and silent stones that aren’t living and never have been, but when I hold them in my hand, something else comes to life, a memory. A memory of living, a generous time when I lived my life my way and cheered on the clouds. A memory of the days when our life was blindly and blandly about living. A few days after that, Richard was diagnosed with leukemia and our days became consumed with staying alive.
Given the fear and sadness that entered my life on Richard’s last breath, given the hollow fact that Carlos won’t remember his Papa, my Daddy who would have been 75 today…How will I teach Carlos about living? Not just the facts about living, but the giddy joy of living? The living in a world of pink smooth stones, whether we can say if they are igmeous or mectamorphic. The living in a world of roses and starfish that are always going to die, every one of them every time.
I will teach him to love it all. Oh, my dear boy, the easiest way to tell whether something is living is to know that it can die. Love anyway.