it’s been months and weeks now. months since one friend died. weeks since the other. maybe because it’s been one after another, one too-soon death followed by another, i’ve tried mightily to listen to the lessons i’m certain they and the heavens were trying to teach. to pound into my thick hard impenetrable skull.
to make sure i didn’t miss the point: live with all your heart. live now. don’t let waste a precious second. and do not get tangled in all of those snarls that really, truly, could not matter less.
why, then, is the last of those truths — the most certainly human — so impossibly out of our reach, or mine anyway?
oh, i’ve cried plenty across the hours of all these months and weeks. tears poured out of the blue because i heard a voice that reminded me of one of my two friends. because i bumped into an email. or a recipe. or a pine cone tucked into a pocket from the last time we walked in the woods.
in the rawest days following death, your head — your whole being, really — all but quivers with the newness, the wrongness, of this life that seems to have a hole torn in the thick of it. in the hours when the stories are churned, and told and retold, you pay keenest attention. you distill the essence, as if a potion that might just save you. you whisper the hardest truths of a life just lost, and you spin them into incantations, promises to the slipping-away friend that you’ll never forget. you’ll never never forget to be alive in just the way their parting words implored.
“Keep marveling,” wrote my friend who died in september, words she’d sent at the dawn of a summer’s day when she was pulled to watch the sun rise over the lake, and wanted me, too, to never stop marveling. and then, in a text one week before she died, she wrote: “Xxx swirl love swirl love recipe for today” (she’d had no time for punctuation that morning, and i didn’t need it.)
not many months before that very last text, exactly one year ago today, she wrote me an email that felt almost like haiku, or a buddhist koan, wisdom refined to its purest: “blessings, blessings, more blessings. every minute is bonus. sun. birds. now.”
my friend who died in march, she too, left me with instructions. she wrote: “if you love the life you have, please, please, practice gratitude. wake up every morning acknowledging just how much beauty is in your world. pay attention to it, honor it and keep your heart and your eyes wide open. you won’t regret it.”
because i love those words so much, because they wound up being inscribed on the back of the prayer card at my friend’s memorial service two saturdays ago, i’ve tucked them on my kitchen counter, just beneath the window sill, where i keep watch on the wonders in my tucked-away garden. i’ve made them my everyday altar. i perched the card in precisely the spot where i stand when i make my coffee each morning, where i pull a cookie out from under the great glass dome, whenever i’m packing my little one’s lunch. i perched the card at the pulse point of my everyday, where i sometimes pause to stare through the panes, to catch a glimpse of springtime unfolding, to marvel at the flashing-by pair of cardinals, entwirled in the vernal pas de deux of lovebirds.
we lose track of our promise to live each and every day as if it might be our last, and to ferret out all piddling nuisance and distraction. and it’s not because we’re fatalistic or showing off our celtic obsession with the beyond, but only because it puts the sharpest edge to being alive.
yet, the litany of temptations is as quotidian, as humble, as imaginable. it goes something like this: the guy in the shiny silver SUV who lays on the horn from just behind you, because you’ve decided to heed the red octagon that’s insisting you STOP; the soccer coach who picks the other kid (after months and months of vying) and doesn’t bother to tell you directly, deputizing someone else to deliver the news you know will break your kid’s heart; the email that wasn’t supposed to land in your mailbox, the one sent by mistake, by someone who meant to grouse behind your back, except that she hit reply instead of forward. oops.
yes, truth be told, it’s these insignificant traps that clutch us by the ankles, that totter us from our vows to stick sure-footedly to a life lived beautifully, gently, blessedly. to stay above the fray, as if wafting with angel wings, hovering over the melee.
i try, with all my might, to resist the temptation. to not give in to the bitter impulse. to stay tuned to the wonder, the astonishment. it’s being human that makes it so hard.
which is why i walk around these days with two slips of paper in my pocket, slips i reach for as if prayer beads, whenever i need to fill my lungs — and my heart — with all that is holy, to discharge the everyday demons:
“swirl love swirl love recipe for today,” reads one of those slips.
“wake up every morning acknowledging just how much beauty is in your world,” reads the other.
and so, on the days, in the hollows of hours, when my promises tumble from my heart, and i feel my knees begin to wobble, i reach my hand in my pocket, and i hold on tight to the last best instruction from my two beautiful friends now watching from heaven.
what makes you tumble? and how do you find the strength to right yourself?
Barbara Mahany, a former pediatric oncology nurse, was an award-winning feature writer at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. She’s now a freelance journalist and author of Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, 2014), and the soon-to-be-published Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving (Abingdon, March 2017). She blogs regularly at Pull Up A Chair.