The woman upstairs from me is dying. Each week the truck rolls up and her oxygen tanks rumble across the walkway above me. “Caution: Contents Under Pressure” and “Flammable” signs are stuck to the door, announcing to all visitors that one is not well here. She’s been sick long before I moved in and her husband, gruff with a serious countenance, shields himself from any neighborly conversations. I hear, in the years before her illness, that she tended the most beautiful garden. Now the pots outside her door whither with dead flowers from years gone by.
Today, I was seized by a green thumb moment, and tackled the fern outside my door. Long neglected, the lower leaves have shriveled and turned a peculiar rust color. The grounds are tended, but somehow, this particular plot seems oddly neglected. And since I’m rarely home or I am making quick dashes here and there, it never really bothered me. But today, I was moved to do something about it. I climbed through the ivy and started whacking away at the giant fern, hoping that when I finished, it would look something like its original self, only shorn, and not like a top-heavy mohawk.
As I hacked away at the plant, the screen door to my neighbor’s home would open, and an outstretched arm placed bits into the garbage. No body, no hello, just an arm. Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity. A woman raced out the door with a cluster of keys jangling loudly around her neck, emphasizing her air of authority. A short Hispanic woman followed. She shuffled out to the street, and slowly, methodically, dumped a bucket of sudsy water into the gutter.
Home hospice visits, a house cleaner, and their case worker all make frequent visits.
The irony is, I learn this, standing in what remained of her garden. Cleaning out the detritus, I learn more about her than I had in the four years since I’ve lived here.
Today’s events lead me to think about last fall. What an awful time that was. Behind the scenes, a friend committed suicide and just as the shock was wearing off, another succumbed to cancer. Two funerals in one month. Just weeks later, my house was broken into. They didn’t take much and I was certain, they’d come back for more. Each night I’d come home, hold my breath and open the door, expecting to find nothing left. Then, that article featuring me in the paper? It was tempered by a persistent stalker, who tracked me down at the office. And to top it off, my father became gravely ill around Christmas, prompting the holiday trip to their home in Florida.
There’s a country western song in all of this, I’m sure….but by January, I was content to stay at home and watch countless hours of documentaries. Like the rhythm of a farm, winter is a time for healing….and renewal. I stayed dormant, doing little other than work and stops at the library to exchange another set of films.
What that period of my life taught me, is to act with a sense of urgency. You never know. That call I received at midnight, saying “Shawn shot himself and the funeral is tomorrow” was the jolt I needed to begin reevaluating my life. I hadn’t seen Shawn in years, but I attended his wedding. Handsome, with a devilish grin, Shawn was driven and loved family to his very core.
How could this be?
At the funeral, a stream of photos crossed the screen: group family portraits, another with his daughter's head nestled into his chest, and in my favorite photo, Shawn is beaming with sweat running down his face--taken just after his first triathlon. I studied each photo, looking for some evidence. I wanted a sign. What did I miss? But there was nothing.
The church was filled to capacity and I wondered, “What would Shawn think if he could see all these people coming to remember him?” Maybe, just maybe, he’d make another choice.
That was a pivotal moment, for sure.
I started to play this game with myself: If I had only one year to live, what would I do differently?
Then the questions became more penetrating: Why not now? Why wait until you’re feeling poorly or the doctor gives you a devastating diagnosis? If you received catastrophic news, would that change your perspective? Why not embrace life now…while you still have the chance?
My inner voice persisted, "What are you waiting for?"
These days, I am much more aware. My perspective has shifted. I’d trade dinner and lively discussion for just about anything. And all those fabulous people in my world? I go out of my way to have parties and foster discussions. Forget randomness. It took me years to find these people. I say, “Welcome to the fold. Now I’ve got some friends I want you to meet….”
Life is far too short. I say, “I love you” more than society may deem appropriate. I hug people I barely know. And when he bends down to kiss me on the cheek, I close my eyes and relish the moment.
I avoid taking things for granted.
And savor the small moments.
My mantra has become, “What does your best life look like? And what could you possibly be waiting for?”