I am boarding a plane to New Orleans—a perfect time to think of my mortality. I keep a list of all the important accounts in a drawer—life insurance, my retirement accounts, the password to an inherited account I received when my uncle died. I told my husband where they were, though I’m not sure he was listening.
I suppose on a plane it’s natural to contemplate tragic crashes, but, in honesty, I spend a lot of time thinking about death—I would think more than the average 42- year old, anyway. It might be because of my day job. I write and edit articles for a magazine for cancer patients and survivors—a vocation I love for a lot of reasons, one of which is helping people get through their diagnosis. Brushing shoulders with people who stare squarely at their mortality admittedly serves as a reminder of how quickly things can change.
Still, I find it comforting to talk to survivors and patients at all stages of their diagnosis, treatment and survivorship. So many, while struggling, are grateful. They feel the presence of the day in a way that comes with the heaviness of knowing it might be the last. Many survivors have plans of what will happen if treatment fails them. If drug A stops working, says one, I can try drug B. If insurance doesn’t cover drug B, one says, mentioning how her daughter will be getting ready to go to college the following year, she may decide to stop treatment completely. In their stories, I find sadness, but also strength. I don’t mind sitting in this space where others might shield their eyes.
One day, at a local diner in Philadelphia, I remember telling my dad, emphatically and non-emotionally, that I don’t expect to live another day—a revelation, which I thought was profound, but caused him to look up from his Ruben with alarm. Seeing his concern and trying to explain further, I added that I didn’t expect to actually die tomorrow, but I also didn’t expect that tomorrow was a given. I guess, in real time, these words were alarming because he went home and called my sister and asked her to check in on me.
A few months ago, a friend of mine died after a tragic fall down a flight of steps at a neighbor’s house. They were celebrating the Super Bowl, and our hometown Philadelphia Eagles would go on to win it all. As I, along with all of Philadelphia, celebrated in the streets, my friend, Alicia, was admitted to an emergency room with trauma to her head. I have yet to make sense of how a 42-year-old person who I had just gone to lunch with the month before can be no longer on this planet. And I have yet to come to peace with the months of machines that kept her alive after that fall—the infections, dialysis, intubation. Some days, I can almost fool myself that she is here, being a mom to two young boys. It is, I guess, my way of coping.
Alicia had no idea the day before she’d suffer that slip that she would only get 42 years. To make it all worse, she had suffered such tragedy in those years. Her father was shot years earlier after a wedding celebration in Washington D.C. Alicia’s sister and mother both witnessed his murder. I remember days after learning of my friend’s father’s death being terrified to walk outside—the randomness that something like this could happen—giving me some kind of episode of mild post traumatic stress disorder. It could happen anywhere, right? A fall. A robbery gone bad. Even the headlines of our day remind us—as shootings occur on a regular basis these days.
In life and at work, I’m acutely aware that death happens every day—as sure as birth. Each morning when I send my daughter to school, I give her a hug, a tender embrace that tries to bottle that warmth, the delicate way my three-year-old bends into me—in case, like so many around me know, bad things happen. She doesn’t know that I pray each day she will return safe, but I do.
But there is also good from all of this sadness. During days when I am rushed and frustrated by the always piling dishes in the sink, I remind myself, “What would Alicia give to wash these dishes after supper with her boys?” I stop and feel the water roll over my hands, the suds and grease all mixed in. I’ve also started writing letters to my daughter in a journal, a tradition that Alicia had, as well as her father before, for their own children. I am also picking the best of three years of pictures for three albums: one for each of my daughter’s magical years.
Sometimes, my daughter and I pray to our angels: my mom, my aunt, my uncle, the boy killed in a motorcycle accident, two sons of friends who died of cancer. Every now and then I call out their names: Angel Aidan, Angel Jake, Angel Luke, so my daughter can hear. Whispering these names is a way to remember them, and also to make the concept of death familiar. I don’t do this to break her, but to help prepare her if tragedy does strike.
After my mom passed in 2009, I have had plans to clear out a back area at the edge of my property line that runs along a stream behind our house. I have always wanted to make a memory garden back there. It’s a small space, but quiet. Nine years ago, I thought I’d just need a bench and some bird feeders for my mom, but since her passing, more mass cards have accrued: My godfather. My aunt. And, shockingly, my friend Alicia.
And if this plane lands, as I am sure it will, what a gift it will be to clear out those vines, to put my hands in the dirt. If this plane goes down—a statistical improbability but a chance nonetheless—I can recognize even in the tragedy of a 42 year old dying along with all those surrounding me right now, there was such joy in the moments leading up to now: The surprising wonder of being a mother later in life when doctors said we probably wouldn’t be able to conceive; the obstetrician who delivered my miracle child, pointing to a locket she wore around her neck, in memory of her own grandmother who “watched over all the babies I deliver” and who just happened to have the same name as my grandmother—the same name I would go on to call my daughter. All these experiences, and countless others, somehow seem more than left to chance. And this, even in grief, allows me to just believe.
And now the plane is safely on the ground. I am home and thinking about the future with no guarantees. But that is no matter. I am looking online to find plants that grow well in the shade. I am looking forward to spring.