My mom died from metastatic melanoma a little over 3 years ago. She found her first lump in mid-Feb of 2009 and she died about 10.5 months later. She lived here in town near me, we had a good relationship, so I accompanied her through the entire process-through all of the consultations, appointments, treatments, et cetera. I was there at her bedside much of the time during her last weeks, including when she died.
I learned a lot about waiting during that time. Most obviously, there were the many waiting rooms where I would wait with my mom before her various appointments. Then there was the waiting for test results—PET scans, MRIs, CAT scans, blood counts, et cetera.
And then there was the waiting that took place during the last couple of weeks of her life when it was clear that all of her treatment options had been exhausted, that the cancer was incurable, and the end was nearing quickly. During that time, when I was at my mom’s bedside and she was sleeping, I would try to wrap my head around the concept that there would soon come a time when my mom would no longer be here. There was going to be a clear and absolute division, a time in my life before my mom’s death and then the time after that. And that time was coming soon. It was a lot to try to wrap my head around, not just emotionally, but even intellectually.
And then one day it did indeed happen. My mom did indeed die. And then life with my mom ended, and life after my mom started.
I don’t have a grand philosophic point in mind as I am writing this. Just a sense of similarity, but in a different direction. I am waiting again, in a very turning-point sense again. This time for the birth of my first child. At 45-years old, my suspicion is that one appreciates this much more and much differently than when one is 25 or 30—or had this happened for me when I was 25 or 30. 45-year old me has lived more and seen more and read more and thought (and written) more—thought (and written) a lot more—than the 30- or even 35-year old me. 30 or 35-year old me hadn’t yet lost his mom, hadn’t yet had Rilke’s writings open up to him like a 3-D picture because of the ending of a particular relationship. 35-year old me wasn’t yet into photography, had only begun exploring Bowen and Schnarch’s writings on “differentiation of self,” was just starting to get a sense of what the world (and many of its inhabitants—human inhabitants) were really like beyond the façade and the veneer.
At 45-years old, becoming a first-time father means something more to me because there’s more of me for it to mean something to.
As Rilke put it, “The richer/deeper we are inwardly, the richer/deeper too is all that we experience.” Something like that.
As I said, I have no grand philosophic insight in mind in writing and sharing this, no pie-in-the-sky Eckhart Tolle-like living in the now while still waiting take on this. Just the simple observation that waiting for a new life has something in common with waiting for a death. Just the simple observation that while my daily life is going on and while I am making preparations for this new member of the family, I am also temporarily in a bit of a holding pattern, waiting for this latest crescendo-like turning point in my life to actually occur—this next *life-will-never-be-the-same-again-afterwards-as-it-was-before* type event, but in an opposite and much more joyous direction. Hopefully. Hopefully, meaning my child is not yet born, my wife has not yet gone through this labor and emerged healthy and having given birth to our son yet. But so far, everything looks good, very good. Any day now. Any day now and my life will change in ways that I cannot fathom. Any day now, and that line will be crossed—the line separating the time when I was not yet a biological father and was still waiting to become one and the time when this new chapter of my life will start.
The only tidbit I have approaching a bit of advice is this: Wise people think about death. Their own and others’. They have a realistic relationship with their own mortality and thus with others’ mortality as well. It’s not a depressing relationship or a morbid one, but a very life-enhancing and perspective-giving one. As in the real meaning of carpe diem—being very grateful for and appreciative of what one has, not sweating the small stuff, not going through life childishly and angrily with a hole in one’s soul that nothing can fill.
We live in a society where the concept of growth has been usurped and externalized to mean improvement and is measured in material ways—home improvements, lifestyle status improvements, social improvements (“How to Win Friends and Influence People”). Advertising has us convinced that if we improve the externals of our situation—take a vacation, redecorate the kitchen, put on a new coat of paint, get a fancier car, travel here or there, somehow gain more attention adulation and fame—then we’ll be happier, or then we’ll finally make it—or at least get closer to this. And for some this does seem to work to some extent and perhaps for a while. But it’s my experience that for this strategy of roundabout self-pseudo-improvement to work, there has to be a fair amount of self-delusion and self-deception in play, as well as some sort of psychic numbing and placating in addition to the shopping and consumerism—alcohol, antidepressants, et cetera (arguably even with some people religion).
Our own mortality and fragility and brevity is a lot to wrangle with. And at first, this wrangling can be very very unsettling—very anxiety-provoking and or very depressing and nihilisitic (life has no meaning, paint it all black)—anything but life-enhancing and perspective-giving and empowering at first.
And clearly this is where many people get caught. We get our first brush with death—someone close to us dies, or we start being haunted by thoughts and intimations of our impermanence and cosmic brevity—and we spin out, dive headlong into a superficial life of appearances, of psychic numbing, of distractions and dissipation, of the pursuit of status and advancement and travel, of checking things of our bucket list—self-indulgent things that we think are ultimately important but that in actuality likely really won’t be.
Or maybe our dive isn’t headlong; instead we just go along even more fervently with the crowd: no else seems to be integrating their own mortality into the fabric of their everyday decision-making, everyone else seems to be chasing after the wind in one form or the other, so why not join the crowd and chase after it too?—after all, what else is there to do in life with one’s life?
But there also seem to be those who have endured the first line and very powerful dissuaders of depression and anxiety and who instead of turning aside from a more realistic relationship with life and with their own and others’ mortality and fragility and brevity, have stuck with it, wrestled with and through the depression or fear and panic, and who have come to some deeper and more abiding sense of perspective and wisdom.
And it’s this realistic relationship with death has much to do with their wisdom, with having made them wise. Arguably, a realistic relationship with our own impermanence, with our own brevity and fragility, is the only source of real compassion—compassion that doesn’t merely involve the limbic system, but that also includes the higher brain—the neo-cortex, the frontal lobes, our conscience and our consciousness.
When we are living in denial, when we live and love and fight and argue as if life goes on forever, we live and love without perspective, and arguably, without much depth or appreciation. Real compassion, real wisdom, stem from developing a realistic relationship—instead of a denial-based relationship—with our own mortality and with our place is the universe. Mortality is a lot to haul; it’s a lot to wrestle with; it can be unfathomably frightening and unsettling and disorienting, but it might just be what ultimately saves you, or lets you avoid living a life of quiet or unquiet desperation and un-appreciation.