My heart is full today. A beloved friend is nearing the end of a long, exceedingly courageous journey with cancer. Moment by moment, she is being called upon to let go of this physical world and to open to mysteries beyond our human understanding. Watching the sunrise at 6:30 this morning, walking in the woods, touching my husband’s arm, I tried to live and love and pay attention enough for both of us, for a friend who is not ready to leave this earth and for myself, so fully occupied upon it. I wondered whether — if I could only be grateful enough, notice enough, feel deeply enough — I might somehow occupy both realms at once, material and spiritual. “Write me the mundane details of your life,” she e-mailed the other night, from her hospital bed. I try to do that. And each time I pause, and look, and gather up some small bouquet of mundane details, what I see is not ordinariness but evidence: this world in which we are blessed to live is full of meaning, beauty, and holiness.
Katrina Kenison wrote this on her blog recently, and moved me (as she almost always does, to be honest) to tears. I thought, again, about the gossamer veil that separates us from the next world, about the almost-inconceivably abstract idea of death. What does it mean, really, to die? I honestly don’t comprehend that entirely.
Again, I thought about the tragic truth that it is only when we are aware of our time being limited (as Katrina’s friend) that we really appreciate it. Somehow, death or illness brushing up against us is the only guaranteed way of showing us how sacred our ordinary lives are.
One of my very best and oldest friends was diagnosed with breast cancer at 28 (we are the exact same age). She is in remission, and is doing extremely well, but that experience forever altered her previously-blithe assumption of how her life would unfold. My mother’s best friend (and my second mother) died at 49 after a difficult battle with pancreatic cancer. My father-in-law received a life-saving heart transplant on Grace’s one-month birthday (and his 36th wedding anniversary) and is still thriving.
In short, I’ve felt the chill of illness, witnessed the death of those I cherish and feared those of others. And still, still, I cannot find it in myself to appreciate more fully the details of this one magic life I get. Why? Katrina’s message reminded me, again, of the paucity of my gratitude, of the total insufficiency of my praise for this immense, extraordinary gift.
Sometimes this truth – the grandeur of my everyday life and the critical importance of honoring it – flashes in front of me, as bright as phosopherescence and as fleeting. Like those unexpected, bright swirls of glowing light in a night sea, the realization leaves an imprint on the back of my eyelids, a tangible reminder of something witnessed, something important from a place beyond rational thought.
I owe it to Jessica, to Susie, to John, I think often, to be more grateful, more aware, more present. And so today I recommit, as I have done so many times, to cultivating true awareness. To realizing the beauty in the bouquets of mundane details that Katrina cites. To not wait for calamity to realize that my days here are not long.
As it so often does, my monkey mind springs to another quotation, more words. And I can’t get Adlai Stevenson’s famous words out of my head now. I believe this was from a Princeton graduation address (and of course that makes it ever dearer to me) but it could easily be to any of us, at any time, inhabitants of this lovely place, this earth, where our days are short.
Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs. And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven. You will go away with old, good friends. And don’t forget when you leave why you came.