30 Jan 2013, Posted by elizabeth in Blog, 12 Comments.

You Are Going to Die


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A few weeks ago I awoke one morning with a small, tight knot in my back.  It had lodged itself in the valley next to my scapula, a compact mass of taut tissue that had taken up residence overnight, for no apparent reason.  I tried massaging it with my fingertips, my elbow arranged in a sharp hairpin in front of my nose to reach the awkward spot on my back.  I tried stretching, soaking in hot baths, and taking Ibuprofen.  Not only did it not budge, it grew worse.  Each time I inhaled deeply I felt the tightness in the upper-left quadrant of my back expand; each time I twisted my torso around to look out my blind spot while driving I felt a tingle of pain race up my back.  After nearly two weeks I finally called my massage therapist, who was able to see me a few days later.

Lying face-down on the soft, white massage table, Sarah asked me what had happened to cause this.  “I don’t know,” I said, innocently, and then launched into the story of my fainting episode and subsequent overnight hospital stay.  “Well, making a dead fall like that on the kitchen floor, that’d be enough for a back to go into spasm.”  As she expertly kneaded the knot and arranged her hands in different configurations on my back I told her that these things – fainting, trips to the emergency room, mysterious muscle spasms – didn’t used to happen to me like they do now.  “The last two years, since Abra has been born, have been really hard on me,” I said, plainly, tears pricking the backs of my eyelids.

Face smooshed into the table, I can feel Sarah nodding and listening; massage therapists and hair stylists are alike in this way. “Have you ever considered that maybe this is just a function of growing older?”  she asks.  I have not.  It is far too easy to attribute these things to Abra and the dramatic changes in my lifestyle that have ensued.  I am in the best shape I’ve been since graduating high school, I remind myself, and quickly shake off the possibility that the natural process of aging has anything to do with it.

Later that week Maikael forwards me an op-ed piece with the alarming title You Are Going to Die, which I read with intense interest.  Since my mother’s sudden death 10 years ago I find myself magnetically drawn to any story that pertains to grief and dying, especially our culture’s (often-backward) treatment of it.  It’s really a piece on aging, a process that, the author astutely notes, is fundamentally characterized by a loss of control, and one that “feels grotesquely unfair,” even though it is the only reality that all of us will eventually face.  I instantly flash to my late-night admission on the cardiac wing of the hospital after fainting, how I was the youngest, healthiest-looking person there, simultaneously fortified and frightened by one singular thought:  You do not belong here.  Unless, of course, I did.  How, the following morning, I was antsy and anxious to be discharged from “a world of sick people, invisible to the rest of us,” trying to wrest control and hasten the process in any way possible, eager to pass back through the veil and reclaim my healthy status.  To be seen again.

These events of the past month have made me more aware than I normally am that, as my friend, Lindsey, would say, I am approaching “the top of the Ferris wheel.”  While I presume that there is still more life ahead of me than behind me (I will turn 35 this year), the ratio becomes less skewed by the day.  My health and youth, once effortlessly bestowed, no longer feel like a given.  There is something about having crossed the chasm from being someone’s child to being someone’s mother that has altered my perspective of what it means to grow older.  Death and birth are bookends for me, as they are for all of us, though I’m not speaking of my own.  My mother’s death and my daughter’s birth:  these are the events that are the primary guideposts on my journey toward living more whole-heartedly and with greater acceptance.  “Death is a lot like birth (which people also gird themselves for with books and courses and experts) — everyone’s is different, some are relatively quick and painless and some are prolonged and traumatic, but they’re all pretty messy and unpleasant and there’s not a lot you can do to prepare yourself.”  In this curious way my daughter’s birth, by all accounts a life-affirming event, has made me increasingly aware of my ascent on the Ferris wheel of life:  standing on the other side of the chasm, it has brought about a deeper understanding of what losing my status as a mother’s daughter has robbed me of.

I’ve recently come to realize that my search for home is intimately and equally connected with my mother’s death and my daughter’s birth.  In the midst of reading Katrina Kenison’s newest book, Magical Journey, she discusses how, while her children are largely grown and out of the house, she is still charged with tending the home fires.  What allows her children to go out into the world and take risks as young adults is knowing that she is holding “home base,” with all its attendant rituals, routines and traditions.  “It’s having a firm footing in the past…that allows them to step boldly forth into new territory.”  The author of You Are Going to Die, upon facing his aging mother selling his childhood home, similarly says:

However infrequently I go there, it is the place on earth that feels like home to me, the place I’ll always have to go back to in case adulthood falls through. I hadn’t realized, until I was forcibly divested of it, that I’d been harboring the idea that someday, when this whole crazy adventure was over, I would at some point be nine again, sitting around the dinner table with Mom and Dad and my sister. And beneath it all, even at age 45, there is the irrational, little-kid fear: Who’s going to take care of me? I remember my mother telling me that when her own mother died, when Mom was in her 40s, her first thought was: I’m an orphan.

Home isn’t so much a physical structure as an intricately woven web of the things that make a life, and when the person who holds that delicate, sturdy web in place dies or otherwise ceases to exist, so, too, goes the security of the web.  For years I’ve wondered where my daring, risk-taking self disappeared to, and I’ve finally come to understand that she vanished along with my mother, that “irrational, little-kid fear” made all the more acute by enduring that loss in my early 20s, a time of shifting identities and the usual uncertainties of where my life might take me.  That my childhood home had been sold the year before, many of its contents liquidated and the remnants siphoned into a small apartment and a dank storage unit, did not help.  We all come to the realization that we must, ultimately, weave our own nets; I’ve just arrived here a little earlier than most.

Everything changes.  There is no going back.  But as I ratchet forward on the Ferris wheel, my car swinging perilously toward the top, I’m also beginning to understand that, after so many rootless years, life has given me an opportunity to now be the one who holds home base and weaves the web.  Raising a young daughter forces me into uncomfortable territory every day, unwittingly nudging me towards that daring person I once was.  I think my craving for home at this particular juncture has a great deal to do with wanting to provide steadiness for my daughter in the shadow of my own shallow root system.  And maybe, through that process, my own roots will grow and deepen alongside hers.

Thank you to everyone for your kind and caring thoughts and comments last week regarding my recent hospital stay.  In sharing this story with others over the past month I’ve come to realize that many people are “fainters,” especially those of us who are deeply sensitive and highly attuned to the world around them. 

Also, the winner of a copy of Magical Journey was Jennifer!  Thanks to everyone who left a comment, and congratulations, Jennifer. 

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12 Comments

January 30, 2013 2:22 pm

Meghan @ Life Refocused

Oh, E, your writing is like soaking in a hot tub! I am enjoying you weaving your story, seeing the fabric come together with threads of motherhood. So beautiful.

January 30, 2013 2:53 pm

Melissa

I read that essay in the Times too, and it made me think of many people’s discomfort with the inevitable. There is a Brazilian song that says “we’re barely born and we start dying.” I like the ferris wheel metaphor better. Of course, I have gone past the top, and feel that the descent comes with real or perceived increased speed. As for changes in your body after having a child, I agree with you. Getting older has something to do with it, but after having a child, you are not your #1 priority. You don’t have the luxury to address little knots before they become big ones, and one knot leads to the next… Hope you are feeling better.

January 30, 2013 3:25 pm

Lindsey

Oh, Elizabeth, I love this … as you know I’m awfully, intimately familiar with the particular vertigo that comes at the top of the ferris wheel, as well as with that position’s unique and breathtaking view. I love the image of the one who holds the web in place, the ones who makes a home. I hadn’t thought of myself this way before, but the truth is, for my children, I am. It feel like an honor and a responsibility at the same time. xox

January 30, 2013 4:39 pm

Celina

Your words and metaphors are so eloquently weaved. I cannot help to muse about life and death these past week after having it hit twice so close to home. Ultimately I decided that life is short, we are all connected and there is so much to be grateful for.

January 30, 2013 5:08 pm

Contemporary Troubadour

Being the one to hold home base is a simultaneously magical and terrifying idea, isn’t it? I’m days from having that responsibility permanently placed in my lap, and I’m torn between wanting it and wanting to preserve this time of in-between. I’ve always been a homebody, creating that home base anyway for myself since the idea of home with my family of origin has been too fraught with tension for years. But to do/make/be/design/nurture home for someone else? You are right — the roots we grow to sustain more than just our own foundations have to be deeper to hold so much more up.

January 31, 2013 1:40 am

Kristen @ Motherese

You had me at “massage therapist.” (Is there a way to make time with Sarah a regular part of your life? I swear, I should be a paid spokeswoman of the massage therapist union.)

As always, E, you draw me into your words and invite me to swim around in my own fears and hopes. I’ve never been one to think much about my own death. But with each birthday and each rung closer to the top of the ferris wheel, I find myself more and more preoccupied by it. I love the idea of keeping the home fires burning, of kindling a flame for my kids and for myself. xo

January 31, 2013 2:25 am

denise

This is gorgeous. These lines particularly resonated with me:

“I think my craving for home at this particular juncture has a great deal to do with wanting to provide steadiness for my daughter in the shadow of my own shallow root system. And maybe, through that process, my own roots will grow and deepen alongside hers.”

My roots often feel shallow, too.

(And since I’m catching up here, I’m sorry to read about your hospital stay. I hope you continue to feel better. I’ll throw in that I, too, am a fainter! Went through many tests to learn mine was a benign cardiology problem–well, benign except for the fainting part.)

Thank you for your exquisite words. xo

February 1, 2013 3:06 pm

Anne

I hardly know where to begin. Beautifully written, of course, and I very much relate to the feeling of wanting to establish solid roots for a family and a daughter. I have been lucky in my life, with many deep, deep roots. My goal is to replicate that for my family, while letting my family be its own evolving thing. As for the other piece of this post, these are murky and unfamiliar waters for me to tread. I am someone who has been horribly frightened of death ever since I was a little girl (partly of my own, but mostly those I love). It kept me up at night then, and it keeps me up at night sometimes now. I have never suffered a loss quite like yours, and so I’ve never really had to “go there.” I remain avoidant of it. Probably to my own detriment, but there it is.

February 8, 2013 2:41 pm

Susan

thank you for speaking so many of the thoughts I have been ruminating over…coming to terms with getting older *sigh* and living through that gracefully.

February 17, 2013 8:03 pm

Lisa Ahn

I can relate to so many of your ideas in this post. I think I felt the top of the Ferris Wheel when I turned 41. Not 40, for some reason, but 41. It was not a comfortable realization!

I also love what you write here: “life has given me an opportunity to now be the one who holds home base and weaves the web.” I also had shallow roots and it took me years and years to find any roots at all. I feel both fear and elation in the knowledge that I’m helping to weave those webs and strengthen those roots for my daughters. What a gift and what an unthinkable responsibility, yes?

Thanks for such a lovely, thoughtful post (as always).

May 23, 2013 5:09 pm

Shannon Lell

Elizabeth,

I have to admit, I didn’t quite understand your interest in defining “home.” Now I do. In the absence of a constant, something you can depend on staying the same, the future seems more precarious, less grounded in something. I get that. When a fulcrum doesn’t exist, the system is chaotic.

I have a home where my mother and father both live. In this respect, I am lucky. They have lived there for 20 years and I have lived in another city for 11 of them. That is not a coincidence. After so much time away, my journey’s home should be happy affairs. I should feel wonderfully loved and embraced by the people who love me most, right? Not so.

I distinctly remember coming back to Seattle after my last trip home and telling my husband, “I’m an orphan.” I’m an orphan with parents. It is so painful to be able to see the thing you need, but not be able to touch it. A persistent, ever-burning pain that never lets up.

I’m sorry to hear about your recent medical issues. I pray it all turns out well.

November 23, 2013 2:29 am

Benny F. Greene

What I really learned was that the ferris wheel is my life and to enjoy the ride with my kids.

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