The last of a generation

It’s December 31, the last day of 2013. This also happens to be the day my mother was born in 1919.

Yet I’m not thinking about birthdays today. Just the opposite: death, specifically the passing of my mother’s generation. Tom Brokaw called this group the greatest generation and profiled their sacrifices and contributions to American society in his book titled the same.

After leaving home for college and to forge my career, I kept in touch with three of my mother’s friends, maintaining those links for decades. Mary Ann lived in Dublin (CA), Blanche in San Francisco, and Audrey lived in Colorado Springs until her husband died and her son transplanted her to Bend.

My efforts to stay connected weren’t much, usually a letter during the holidays that recapped news of the year, occasionally a call if I were in the area and had time before a flight. A few times, when my travel schedule permitted, we were able to have lunch or dinner.

My mother appreciated my effort, though I didn’t really do it for her. Although infrequent, my contacts rekindled fond memories from childhood.

Earlier this year I received a call with the news that Mary Ann had died. The last time I saw her was when she visited my mom, shortly before my mom’s death in 2006. They had gone to high school together, where they formed a life-long friendship. I don’t remember the last time I spoke with Mary Ann, probably sometime during 2012. I do recall the sound of her voice and how interested and supportive she always was.

Preparing to mail out this year’s holiday letters, I deleted Mary Ann from the mailing list. And I wondered about the others.

Googling San Francisco obituaries, I found the notice of Blanche’s death, last March. She was 95. The short obit described her as “an independent woman of indefatigable energy, always ready to do business.”

Indeed she was. I recall her infectious laugh and the energy that seemed to lift everyone in the room. I loved visiting her office on Geary Street, where I could look down from the windows to see the sights in Union Square, in the heart of San Francisco. My  first memory of Blanche was her trying to teach me how to play craps, rolling the dice on my kitchen floor. I was just 6 or 7.

Another entry deleted from the list, one less letter to mail.

Googling for obituaries in Bend revealed nothing. Relieved, I remembered that I had Audrey’s phone number and decided to call, realizing that I hadn’t spoken with her in over a year. A man answered the phone, which I thought might be her son Quentin.

“Is Audrey there?”

“I’m sorry. There’s no one by that name here.”

I verified that I had correctly dialed the number. Yes, he confirmed, but reiterated that no one named Audrey was associated with the number.

I’ll mail the letter and hope that it doesn’t come back “return to sender.”

Sadly, it seems that my living connections to this generation have nearly passed. Yet I do have the memories of the times we spent together and their influence upon my life. I can still vividly hear their voices. For that, I’m grateful.

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Finding gratitude amidst grief

Sunday — What a beautiful late fall afternoon, this first day of November. The leaves left on the trees – surprisingly quite a few – are now a burnt orange against a backdrop of blue sky and white wispy clouds. The car thermometer shows an unseasonably warm 60 degrees as I pull out of the driveway, the image of Grant raking leaves in the rear-view mirror.

No traffic delays the drive into Boston, no lines slow my passage through airport security, both benefits of flying Sunday afternoon, when most business travelers are home watching football. The downside is losing part of the weekend. How many weekends are in a life?

Today I feel a wistful sense of time.

I love to fly. I mean as a passenger, not a pilot. Despite the cramped seats, crowds, waiting, delays, and lack of hospitality, I can always rekindle a childlike amazement at this big metal bird sustaining itself at 39,000 feet and, even more, the ability to travel from one side of the country to the other in a mere 6 to 8 hours. When I lament that a flight is taking unbearably long, I try to recall that just 150 or so years ago, this journey lasted months and was fraught with dangers. During that era of covered wagons and railroads, no one could have imagined that we would crisscross the country in hours, barely paying attention to the awesome sight of the sprawling landscape below.

The experience of my generation is that normal is the norm, life is routine, often boring. Extreme sports and reality TV were invented to make it more exciting. We expect virtually no risk in our lives: no planes crash, the power doesn’t goes out, diseases are prevented, what illness invades our bodies is cured. When something out of the ordinary does occur, a commission or government agency determines the cause to prevent future occurrences.

So foreign the concept, I have to visualize that not that long ago, life was much harsher. Disease was common. It often killed people. Children died at or within a few years of birth. Mothers died giving birth. Longevity was more the exception than the norm.

I wonder how such uncertainty affected our forebear’s sense of gratitude. Could the experience of more frequent loss have instilled a deeper appreciation for the seemingly simple and basic gifts of life?

Tuesday — What is the relationship between grief and gratitude? I’ve been pondering that for several days now, since hearing tragic news. A mom, just 52, has a sudden stroke, leaving her husband and two teenage boys – the same age as my two children – with a lifetime void that’s hard to comprehend. The horror of their loss is visceral, a lump in my chest.

With no rational reason to explain why death happens nor to relieve the sadness, I wonder if there can be solace through gratitude. Gratitude for the days I am given, the people who love me, the glimpses of beauty that too easily fade into the background blur of the routine and the rush.

As the plane begins to descend into Boston, returning me from my cross-country journey, my gaze lingers on the sun splashed cloud peaks, the shadows forming below in the waning afternoon sun.

This is not routine I tell myself. It’s an incredible mystery and miracle. I have the privilege of being a witness, a participant.

After another routine landing and inconsequential drive home through evening traffic, my hugs are a bit more intentional.

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Good night 2008

Another year comes to a close, number 55 in the chronology of my life. 2008 has been good, however that’s not to say it has been without sadness, nor a presage for challenges on the horizon. The year has been good because life is a gift.

I appreciate this much more after the past three years, when I have personally experienced that decades of seeming stability can end at any moment. Death or serious illness or any number of life-changing events intrude, creating raw edges and the visceral knowledge that the continuity of life is unstable and will be punctuated by loss.

My mother would have celebrated her 89th birthday today, were she still alive. She made it to 86. Except for her last three months, she lived as she wanted: independent and fully engaged with life. I miss her, our daily e-mail chatter back and forth across the country and my occasional drop-in visits when I was traveling to the west coast. I am so grateful that she and I had her last summer to share, for both of us to prepare for her pending death. While challenging, that time was sacred and a wonderful gift.

The life lesson I am learning with each year’s passing is to savor each day, to recognize that it might be the last. This thought is beautifully expressed in the poem Otherwise, written by Jane Kenyon.

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

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Last week marked my in-laws’ 55th wedding anniversary. They were married the year I was born, which is truly remarkable. Their relationship is a great example of a partnership of mutual respect and long-term commitment.

They quietly celebrated this year, as my father-in-law just finished a series of radiation and chemo treatments for tongue cancer. No night out or fancy dinners, as he’s relearning how to swallow. Nonetheless, I suspect the anniversary was quite special, given all they have been through this summer.

Yesterday was the second anniversary of my mother’s death. I remember the day too well, the culmination of a summer of preparation and waiting. On that Sunday morning, having lived fully to 86, she died quietly and at peace, in her home with her dog. That was just the way she wanted it to end.

While the grief has subsided, I miss her and always will. We were close and constantly chatting via e-mail or Skype. She was a good adviser: her life experience combined with a mother’s advocacy. Through my experience, she fed her interest in business, vicariously seeing a career that her age and the context of her time wouldn’t allow her to experience herself.

55 years and 86 years; both signify longevity. The paradox of such is that we come to believe it will never end. But it does, usually catching us by surprise and ill-prepared. Looking back, we may wish that we had savored and cherished the moments and experiences more.

One of the secrets of living a fulfilling life, I think, is to live in the moment. No day but today, to quote the song from Rent.

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In memory of Leroy Sievers

Yesterday, I pulled up NPR’s web page, hunting for some story, and was stunned when I saw the news that Leroy Sievers died Friday night.

I didn’t know Leroy and wasn’t aware of his work as a journalist. I learned of him two years ago when NPR reported on his blog My Cancer. That was around the time my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Leroy, 51, was fighting his cancer. My mother, 86, decided not to fight hers. With great equanimity, she announced that she had lived a full life and would let the disease take its course.

I followed Leroy for a bit and was encouraged by his progress. Soon, I had more than enough reality preparing my mother and myself for her death, and I stopped reading Leroy’s blog. Even after her death, now approaching the second anniversary, I did not resume reading, needing time and space for my own scars to heal.

Hence, my surprise and tears when I read of Leroy’s death at age 53. His fight gave him another two years, yet his time ended too soon for someone who had been so full of life. Just read Ted Kopel’s remembrance.

The last two weeks of Leroy’s blog are poignant. The family’s decisions to engage hospice and bring in a hospital bed were not easy, markers that the end was coming. Sooner than expected, it seems, and certainly sooner than hoped.

In the quiet of this evening, the crickets the only sound other than my typing, I am honoring Leroy’s struggle and courage and wishing his family comfort and strength. The immediate days after such a loss are a blur of preparation and sorrow, the sorrow creeping in when the activity subsides and the house becomes quiet.

My daughter is a fan of PostSecret. One of her favorite postings comes to mind, an admonition for the rest of us:

Psst, here’s a secret. Your last mortal thought will be, “Why did I take so many days – just like today – for granted?”

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