I’m building playlists.
Natasha Bedingfield’s Unwritten, Suzanne Vega’s Left of Center, and my beloved Bolero by Maurice Ravel are just a few of the permanent songs on my playlist. The menu of songs grows larger and more varied; but these are my mainstays.
Part of where I’m going, is knowing where I’m coming from
I don’t want to be
Anything other than what I’ve been trying to be lately
All I have to do
Is think of me and I have peace of mind
I’m tired of looking ’round rooms
Wondering what I’ve got to do
Or who I’m supposed to be
I don’t want to be anything other than me ~ Gavin DeGraw
My mother-in-law (MIL) recently told me her father’s cancer (my children’s maternal great grandfather) had aggressively returned. He shared the results of his MRI with his daughter (my MIL) and told her he would not be with us, at this time, next year. His doctor had said these words three years ago, and we had braced ourselves as he underwent surgery. At the dinner table, two nights ago, I shared this with my husband and our kids.
My MIL sat across the desk from me with tears in her eyes. We talked of burial plots and Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders. It is rare to get her to speak of these things and over the course of the twenty-two years I have known her; I have on many occasions tried to have this conversation. Advance directives. Hospice. Death and Dying.
In the years when I was a gerontologist I spoke to older patients about these issues. None of them took me seriously; the fresh out-of-college student walking the halls of our large county hospital. The physician who mentored me had warned that I would not get very far with this topic during my internship. She had been right. My youth did not give me any perspective. Most people choose not to acknowledge mortality. My mother-in-law is one of these people.
I shared with her my girlfriend’s recent experience when her father-in-law passed away. We had both read Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters In the End and her husband’s father’s health rapidly declined. He chose to say his goodbyes to his family on his terms; lucid, dignified and with positive memories for the loved ones left behind to remember him by. He directed his own terms of death.
We can try to alter death’s trajectory. We exercise and make healthy choices but when that day comes these things don’t matter. There are college savings plans, 401Ks and investment retirement accounts to plan for the future. But who invests in death? I look across the desk at her and she looks away. She asks where her son and I will be buried. I proceed to tell her the location in the hills that bear my name.
This Memorial Day weekend we had camping reservations at El Capitan State Beach but due to an oil spill off the coast, all reservations were cancelled. The weather was cool and overcast for this time of year. There will be no pool parties to kick off the “unofficial” beginning of summer. Instead I find myself dreaming of flowers outside my childhood bedroom window in the small town I grew up in. I have no remaining family there; my closest childhood friends dispersed throughout our state. It has been almost two years since I have made the two hundred mile trek.
I head home; to know where I come from.
Because just like in DeGraw’s lyrics I get tired of looking around rooms trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do. Who I am now is exactly who I’m supposed to be. Me. It used to be hard to define “me” and after the death of my mom it no longer entailed the word daughter. I was redefined as a mother, a solitary military spouse raising two young boys. Ironically this song had come out the same year of her death, 2003.
Memorial Day always reminds me of the sacrifice of serving and many years I chose to commemorate this day floating with a drink, in hand, in a swimming pool. It’s easy to deny and forget the true meaning of this day; away from cemeteries and military installations.
It’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable in my own skin. To not be something I’m not. I have weathered many transitions but it was only after I sat alone with my husband, processing the words from his mother, that I realized I had survived the wrenches life has thrown my way. In 2003, although married, I was still very much alone. It wasn’t until 2009, when my husband exited the military to assume his family’s business, that we became a family once again.
Being an only child had prepared me for walking alone on my life’s journey.
We drove by our campsite; denied entry as workers in white hard hats convened and tug boats ferried booms to collect the oil. Traffic was at a standstill as cars gawked at the machinery. We continued north into the rolling hills of the central coast; counting the bells I began to notice dotting the freeway every few miles. The hubs began to keep track of each bell with the odometer and it was only when we read the sign that we realized we were on the historic El Camino Real; the same paths the missionaries of our golden state traversed hundreds of years before. Fresh off of chaperoning a fourth grade trip at a mission, our state’s history remained in my mind and I was dumbfounded. Every mile a bell appeared and soon our entire vehicle began to look for them amidst the shrubbery alongside the freeway.
Our trek north had been a spontaneous decision after camping was cancelled. Our days have been frenzied with meetings, open houses, concerts and end-of-school activities; as the month of May ends and the open three day weekend allowed us breathing room. But the dream of my childhood home lingered and when I pitched my idea, to the hubs, for a day trip he was surprised. The master of spontaneity he, without fanfare, rallied our sons the night before to prepare for our day trip. Hours of electronic bliss were slipping through their fingers and with a collective groan they asked, WHY?! To their credit, when the hubs shared we were visiting my parents’ graves, they immediately grew pensive.
I’ve realized why I like road trips. It is extended mandatory family time in the small confines of our SUV. I’ve finally stopped wondering how long until we reach our destination and prolong the drive to get there. Our entire weekend could’ve been spent at home staring at our computer screens, ear buds in. Instead came the random threads of conversations that would never find time in the normal every day, with all five people actively listening and participating.
I now enjoy the journey.
We read dates on very old headstones and talked about World Wars. My sons placed flowers in cement vases and we prayed for departed souls to rest in peace. We talked of death and dying and the circles of life. Are we hurting them by sitting on top of them? asked our youngest son; careful to walk upon the grass. Ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust. The wind whipped the cemetery adorned with flags. Amongst the rolling hills and strong sea breezes I am grounded by the place where I am from. Home. I remember.
We find the beach strewn with dead man ‘o war jellyfish; the oil slick visible upon the waves washing ashore. The environmental impact of the oil leak is taking its toll. I am reminded that all is not pure in this world and that we must roll with the tide; to try to ride it as best as we can. Death eventually takes us all. The DeGraw songs runs on repeat in my mind as I dig my heels into the sand.
On Memorial Day we watched American Sniper; a fitting reminder of the sacrifices our service members choose to protect our freedoms. They face mortality daily; death and dying part of the job description. Countries fight for “peace;” the various sects and political ideals wanting their ways. But peace must come from within. One person can affect change; small outcomes do make a difference. If I can model this for my sons, and they model it within their peers…it can grow exponentially; paying it forward. I invest my time in these relationships.
I add songs to the music playing in my mind and heart; repeating them over and over. They help me find my rhythm and inner peace as I walk to the varying cadences and tempos in this life. The playlists build as I continue to hear them. I continue my walk.