29 October 2013

And Then We Die

Familyby Pejterek
I was tooling along in my (thankfully, for the present, running smoothly) little VW yesterday when NPR announced the death of Marcia Wallace, an actress I remembered well from her role as the receptionist on the old Bob Newhart Show. Dead at the age of 70.

As is habitual for me, upon hearing her age, I immediately calculated the difference between our ages. I rounded the figure down by a little bit and thought, Wow! If I die at the same age as her, I have only 10 years of life left...

It was a shocking, sobering thought. One decade left to live.

When I shared the experience with my housemate, I suggested it was an inspiring, motivating time frame, a nudge toward getting done whatever remains undone in one's life. Ever the teacher and actress, I said it the way I'd say it onstage or in a workshop, imbued with hope. But 'hopeful' was not what I felt.

What I felt was astonishment and a little fear and some sadness. I wondered Where did my life go? 

Later, I thought, Well...and so it goes. Time, a man-made construct, a popular delusion we unanimously embrace, flies and plods and ultimately, runs out. No one beats the clock. We do what we can, what we will, what we must -- and then we die. Big lives, small lives, busy or sedate, well-traveled or not, successful (or not), we all die. Time runs out.

I woke up this morning thinking about my family. About the ongoing estrangements and disagreements and silences. Often enough, my father, frustrated by the enduring lack of cohesion among us, reminds me (and himself) that Time waits for no one, Tomorrow is promised to none... These old adages are pulled up to move us toward reconciliations not yet realized...and, so far, they never work.

With my first bowl of coffee and two cigarettes behind me, what is apparent and true for me in this moment is the unlikelihood that any adage or gesture can reunite my family. The members of my near and extended family are no less complex and mysterious beings than I am, wide sargasso seas that stretch toward the horizon in every direction with no land in sight. We are as different as night and day -- and as similar as trees or blades of grass. There is little to no hope for arriving at complete understandings or unconditional affection as there is also little to no hope of ever living peacefully with the absence and disregard that has come to define our connection.

Novels and plays tell stories of tearful reunions on the occasion of a death in the family. These are not the stories of my family. Other novels and plays tell stories of a protagonist moved to make an epic journey "home" in hopes of reuniting with a loved one after decades of alienation. This is not the story of my family.

I got out of bed this morning determined to begin to tell the story of my family. My story of my family -- which by definition can be only a version or an aspect of The Story of my family, a story of necessity out of sync with the stories anyone else in this bloodline might tell.

We are a family of silences, of privately coddled injuries and unacknowledged errors as well as unexpressed gratitude, pride and longing. This morning, not for the first time, I am full of wonder and curiosity about the untold stories that guide or haunt or torment my son, my siblings, my cousins... And, fully aware that I'll likely go to my grave without ever hearing any of their stories, I will at least tell my story as forthrightly as possible.

The hands of Time sweep broadly and steadily onward. In the relentless forward leaning of Time, while I still have breath, I'll tell my story. A story that does not seek to spark a change of heart in anyone who hears it but rather to reveal the heart of the one who lived it.