As many of you know, I just spent a month in Long Island with Kiran’s family, as my husband witnessed the passing on of his father after a 20-year struggle with Parkinson’s disease. I mostly cared for the children and did my best to support Kiran, his father’s wife, and his teenage boys (Kiran’s half-brothers). It taught me a great deal.
Returning to Hawaii, I have been bombarded with messages from friends who are going through the fatal illness and loss of their parents and dear friends. It has really driven home the point that as we are getting older, death and grief are becoming more and more a part of our everyday reality. And so I have attempted to record some of my thoughts and feelings in this blog poem. I hope it resonates with some of you.
BETWEEN BIRTH AND DEATH
Balanced on the precipice between birth and death.
This is where you stand. This is where we all stand, every day, whether conscious of it or not.
By the time your children are toddlers, and certainly by their arrival at adulthood, chances are that at least one of your parents or dear friends or relatives will have grown ill and passed away.
At first, when you became a parent, you spent all your time obsessing over birth and new life. You may have worried about and struggled with getting pregnant and bringing them to life. But somehow, miraculously, you birthed them.
And amazingly, gloriously, you made it through the tunnel to the other side of infancy. Past the sleepless nights when your head spun with dire thoughts of “What have I done?” You survived the intoxicating madness of tiny humans constantly demanding every ounce of your energy, while also filling you with love supreme, laughter and delight.
Now you stand before a loved one who is dying, facing the opposite end of the equation. And what is so crazy is that it reminds you keenly of that first year of your children’s lives.
Your father or mother or in-law or favorite aunt or good friend who stands at the doorway of death requires constant energy and attention from you and those around you. She needs to be spoon-fed mashed sweet potatoes and avocados. He gets easily confused, overwhelmed, and frustrated. She sleeps so peacefully but wakes at four in the morning demanding to know what is going on. He has to be bathed, dressed, and taken to the bathroom every few hours. She wears diapers and drinks nothing but formula.
Infancy all over again.
And you, you are mired in the middle of this mess.
If you’re lucky, you have a partner or another parent or sibling or friend or some other loved one by your side. But still, you’re it. You are one of the very few who can handle the chaotic mash-up of birth and death and everything in between.
You are the one in charge. You are the caregiver. The provider. The one they’re counting on.
The old and the young. The frail and the fermenting. The new and the blossoming.
You are the one who makes it all happen.
Sandwiched here between life at its end and life just begun, sustaining it all, you feel crushed at times. You can’t breathe. You envision yourself in that awful trash compactor from the original Star Wars movie: the walls are closing in, slowly but surely, and either you’re going to drown in the muck or explode from the pressure.
There is no time for you.
A well-intentioned friend suggests you take a break. Do some self-care. Get a massage.
You laugh bitterly.
How? Whether you work outside of or in the home, you have work to do all the time. And when you aren’t doing it, you are doing your best to be a wonderful companion to your little ones.
When you are not entertaining them, taking them to the park or to music class or a playdate or singing them songs or inventing new games or dressing up or building castles, then you are shopping for, preparing, and cleaning up after a meal or whatever their latest mess might be, from a dirty diaper to a broken flower pot to a scraped knee to an art project that resulted in your entire deck, their bodies, and your clothes getting an unintended new coat of paint.
You put the children down for a nap. Or you hire a sitter. Or you wake up two hours earlier than they do. Or you rush home from work before that critical project is finished.
And in this precious stolen time, you race to your sick loved one’s bedside. You offer her a sip of apple juice. A bite of Jell-O. You plump up his pillow. You play his favorite radio station.
Then you ask him how he is doing and he stares at you with desperation and fear. She grabs hold of your hand like she’s drowning and begs you not to leave.
Your heart caves. You cry like the Hoover Dam unleashed, begging God or the Universe or whomever or whatever you believe in for forgiveness, for not being able to do or be more. For not having six arms and the magical ability to be in two places at once.
You feel guilt eating a hole in your stomach.
Then, one day, your parent or in-law or favorite uncle or best friend dies.
And you are struck by a lightning bolt.
You are devastated. Your soul turns forever a shade darker. You will always feel that a part of you has gone missing.
You raise your eyes upward in thanks. You feel a little pitter-patter of hope and happiness in your tender heart.
Because the presence of death is the single most remarkable reminder of the gifts of life.
And life you have!
Life surrounds you. It may threaten to engulf you at times, but it is here, like fireflies dancing across the summer sky. Your life. And that of your partner and your other family members and your children and your friends.
YOU ARE ALIVE! What a miracle!
And so you laugh at the drama of modern parenting. The next time someone tells you that you should try this technique or buy that product or do such-and-such better or really, you shouldn’t ever let your child say or do that… You just give a warm smile and offer, simply, “Thanks.”
You burn your copy of How to Raise the Perfect Child, which has been sitting on your bedside for the past twelve months or years leaving you with nothing more than the gnawing feeling that you aren’t enough.
You put your smartphone away.
And you sit down on the floor to play Legos and dolls with your children for an hour. You get muddy building a fort in the yard. You go to soccer practice and actually watch the game instead of Facebook videos. You dance across the living room with a tiny hand squeezed tightly in yours. You feel your eyes moisten when one kid hears the other crying and rushes to hand her a favorite toy. You even smile when they throw their pasta onto the ground and yank each other’s hair.
Because this is it. This is all there is. This is all that matters. This is all that counts.
Not the do’s and the don’ts, not the shoulds and the shouldn’ts, not the achievements or classes or comparisons, or meltdowns in the grocery aisle, or scoldings that were too strict, or boundaries that were not held tightly enough.
Not the numerous mistakes you, your partner, and your children are sure to make.
Being together. Being present.
Showing up with heart and forgiveness.
You know now that if you do just that, you’re already doing more than enough.
Death teaches us that the only thing that matters in this precious life is love.
And all you have to do to be “the perfect parent” is pay attention.