Here’s the thing, kids: I’m not afraid to die, but I’m afraid of leaving you. And I’m not afraid to talk about it, but I am afraid to write it all down — there’s a deeply primitive part of me that fears putting pen to paper will usher in everything I’m frightened of, a strangely superstitious place in me that collects omens and dark dreams and dreads the naming of this, because names are power, and nobody wants to give death more power than it already has.
So, there it is. Turning thirty-five, turning my palm up and seeing the lifeline pulling away like a sleepy tide stealing back to the sea. Eighty-one years is the average, and it’s pretty good as averages go, but even another fifty years isn’t enough — it can never be enough when you know what you’re giving up. I try to contemplate it rationally; I sit with it in silence, I sing it out of open windows speeding down a half empty highway, I taste it in the warmth of fresh bread on my tongue, and I let it caress me in the wind that blows through my skirt on the first bright day or spring. I give it as much logic as I can manage, but that isn’t much — there’s no logic in the not knowing, the bastard not knowing, not having the when or the why or the what happens next. I’ve never been good with the unknown, with the kind of vast unexplored territory you can’t map out or plan around, and death offends me on that level, it makes me angry, I am resentful and I wish to punch it squarely in the esophagus, to take its breath, to momentarily surprise it out of its smug indifference. I’m not afraid of it, I’m pissed at it.
I’m pissed at it because everything around me is so goddamned beautiful, and I never want to let that go. I never want to stop staring at the full moon hanging over the black velvet sky, diamond chips set in constant constellations, my eyes full of ancient light. I never want to stop feeling your father’s hand in the small of my back, his hand in my hair as I slip into the kind of sleep you can only achieve when you know you’re no longer alone in the world. I never want to stop watching the two of you navigate the uncharted waters of your life, sailing out on the winds of your wild imagination, full of brave and stupid and worthy adventures. I never want to stop writing, feeling the words build up in that secret spot behind the center of my forehead, seeing them explode on the screen, going back and reading them later and wondering who on earth wrote them because I have no idea how it ever came from me. I never want to stop marveling at the satin touch of hair falling down bare shoulders, the way every story tells everyone’s story, the intensity of a woman ten seconds away from birthing new life into the world, the way music speaks in the secret language of souls, how fire lets loose something deep inside your belly, the dreamless sleep and heavy limbs of true contentment — these are not things I will walk away from willingly, they are the things I will fight for, the things I will hold my last breath for, the things I will see when my sight has deserted me. The beauty in my life makes me greedy, and I’m unapologetic about that part of it all.
What will happen to you when I’m gone? I hope you will both be grown, fully immersed in mostly happy lives of your own making, ones hallmarked by love, and joy, and gratitude. I hope I will have seen you through childhood into the rough waves of adolescence and on in to the quieter seas of your own adulthood. I hope I will have held your hands through failed tests and failed friendships and failed first attempts at love. I hope I will have kissed away the tears of scraped knees and scraped hearts. I hope I will have said to you at every opportunity how much I love you both, love you so much that words can’t do justice to the way it sits in every cell in my body and spirals through my DNA, the way it takes up so much space inside that sometimes I can barely catch my breath around it. I hope I will have said to you a thousand times that I am proud of you, not for anything you do, but simply because you are; every life is its own miracle, but to hold the miraculous in your womb is to possess temporary divinity, and you can’t help but feel honored by the privilege of ushering in an entirely new being, a stunning scope for potential hanging like a halo over the fragile head that fits neatly into the palm of your hand. Whatever you accomplish in life, you began it held to hearts straining under the weight of newly born wonder. I hope I will have told you this story so many times that you know all the words. I hope we will have shown you that deep and abiding love is possible in a world that so often seems stitched together from loneliness and want, that we will have fought in front of you, and apologized in front of you, and kissed and held hands under your withering gaze. I hope we will have been an inspiration as often as an embarrassment, and that you will know however hard it gets, it’s worth the work if you have an ally, a true companion, a partner, a good man or woman who will see the good in you, and remember it even when you forget it and forget yourself. I hope I will be able to watch you fall in love for real, to see you unfurl under the burning sun of it, to catch you daydreaming with a finger on your lips, recalling that touch again and again.
I hope I’m there, but if I’m not….
God, how to condense a lifetime of lessons learned into a single letter. I haven’t even been particularly adventurous, but distilling it all down to the most important parts seems impossible. Mostly, it’s just love. Love isn’t everything, but it kind of is, all the same. It is the thing that empowers you and destroys you and builds you back up again into something different but better. It’s not always romantic. It’s not always forever. Sometimes it’s as much about letting go as it is opening up and letting it in. Sometimes it’s unrequited and sometimes it’s incredibly mutual and sometimes it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s a light and a ladder and an anchor and a chain and it has wings lined with lead, and it’s the meanest, fairest teacher you will ever have.
The other thing is kindness. Don’t be an asshole. Look around you: at any given moment, there is tremendous heartbreak and tragedy and a thousand small sad occurrences, not in the abstract, but happening to people you know. Maybe even happening to you. Let kindness be the soft sword you yield. Treat people with respect. The Pope, a movie star, your dad, the waiter, that homeless guy that hangs out at the corner of the intersection: our naked souls all look the same. You don’t have to be a pushover, you can be passionate and determined and believe in something so deeply that it feels like a fire glowing behind your breastbone, but be nice. Reach out and relieve some of that emptiness we all come equipped with.
Train yourself to find beauty in the small things — the evening light falling on sheer white curtains, the rough bark of the first tree you ever climb, cold water like silk on a parched throat, the prickling of the sun on winter soft skin, the silver white of poplar trees in the moonlight, the cinnamon smell of your first kiss, running your fingers through the hair of someone you love, the healing emptiness after a hard cry, the tiny rosette of blood on a paper-cut thumb. Write about it, or paint it, or sing or dance or sculpt. The ability to create is your human birthright.
Love as often and as deeply as you can. Extend kindness and respect across the board. Take in the beauty of the world around you and create it in your own image. I think those are the three most important lessons I could hope to instill in you.
I’m never going to go easy, whenever it is. I want to live to count the wrinkles on your face, to see your hair slowly silver, to watch the smooth skin on the backs of your hands transform into a complicated root system, to take your grandchildren on my knee and smell your familiar scent somewhere in their soft youth. I want to live to see you find that thing that makes you happiest, and then do it, to not waste years worrying about whether you should or can, the way I did. I want to live to have crowded Christmas holidays at our home, with flushed faces and noisy children running around in slippery socks and mismatched pajamas; I want there to be husbands and wives and babies and cousins and tables creaking under the weight of everyone’s favorite foods, and your dad and I, standing in the center of the chaos, my cheek resting against his shoulder, sharing a profound sense of completeness and thankfulness as we take in this world we made around us. I want to live long enough to have a crowded bedroom at the end, to be carried out of consciousness on the touch of everyone I love most, to look around through tear-spiked lashes and see so many faces made in half my image, to feel myself free-floating on the force of love in that small space; and if I’m allowed to take that last breath in and in and in, tasting like the peace of a life well lived, scented with the comfort of held hands and a clear brow, maybe I won’t have to fight. Maybe I will let go.
But I’m not making any promises. I told you, this world makes me greedy.
…..And now I have about a year’s worth of wood to go knock on.