“Death will come and will have your eyes—
this death that accompanies us
from morning till evening, unsleeping,
deaf, like an old remorse
or an absurd vice. Your eyes
will be a useless word,
a suppressed cry, a silence.”
– Cesare Pavese
A poignant quote this almost-Fall morning from one of my favorite poets, Cesare Pavese. I first learned about Pavese in high school, when I stumbled upon a sleeper film that still, more than 25 years later, ranks in my top five favorite films ever: “A Man In Love,” starring an incredibly talented and beautiful cast (Peter Coyote, who still holds a top spot on my “celebrity pass” list, a very hot, young Greta Scacchi, Jamie Lee Curtis, on fire in her role, and the regally but rustically beautiful and talented international film star Claudia Cardinale. You can’t find it on DVD, so those of you with a VCR still hanging around are lucky – if you can, get your hands on a copy and watch it. You’re welcome.)
As I prepare for my annual physical this afternoon (primarily by fasting, but also mentally preparing), it strikes me that the annual physical process is, in some ways, kind of ludicrous. The news each year is a little worse as I get older – this number or that is a little more or less than it should be, not enough of this and too much of that, and time marches on. I have almost no control over when or how I will die, and my participation in diet and exercise and other health-minded behaviors is really, if I am honest with myself, in some part rooted in a fear of pain (in the form of heart attack, cancer, what have you) and an agonizing, uncomfortable aging and dying process, as opposed to living healthfully and happily up until a ripe old age and then dying quietly in one’s sleep, which is really NOT how it happens for most people, I know. I also know on a conscious level that the chances of death happening where I daily worry it might, depending on my plans that day – in a car or airplane crash, crossing the sidewalk, being crushed under a falling railroad trestle – are out of my control, and that when it happens, it happens.
On the phone with my Mom this morning on the way to work, I was bemoaning the latest crush of projects and snarls of traffic on the way in. “I hope you get to retire someday,” she said. I told her I hoped so too, and then said I was looking forward to it. I think it would be depressing for her to really realize that there is no way in hell I will ever be able to retire, I’ll be “working for somebody else until I’m in my grave … dreaming of a life of ease.”
I think in some ways I was born behind the 8-ball and I’ve been digging my way out ever since. I work my ass off to try to give my kid every opportunity I can, especially in these early, formative years. People are often shocked what I have been paying for preschool, but with few options, and all of them expensive, I picked the best one that I could for him. My parents were unable to give us the best of much of anything, except, in the case of my Mom at the very least, her undying love and acceptance, which is of course a priceless gift. But I think about how my sister and I used to have to ride with our feet on either side of the back seat foot space, and not in the middle where a mat would normally be, because the center was rusted through and you could see the road speeding along. I had no idea how dangerous this was when I was a kid. Or the time the brakes went out on the old Pontiac my Mom was driving because they couldn’t afford to get them fixed, and we went careening through the neighborhood, finally coming to a stop on someone’s lawn. Or the time a middle school classmate suddenly gave me a couple of trash bags’ worth of her gently worn (and awesomely stylish!) clothes and I thought she was just being really nice, I had no idea what “charity” even meant back then. Poverty drives you to desperation, for sure, and by the time my childhood poverty reached its apex in high school, I was plenty pissed off about it. I don’t think most people I went to school with had any idea why I was as angry as I seemed all the time, and I wasn’t in the mood for sharing. Risky behavior led to more risky behavior and I can now recall situations that were so dangerous or illegal or frightening that I shudder to think I was even in them, and know I am lucky to have survived, intact, healthy, and somewhat sane.
Of course, I came out the other side grittier and tougher, but I’m not always sure that’s a good thing. My son, who was a born jester, has not necessarily softened it so much as allowed me to tap into the child that was once there, who didn’t know what danger even was, even when it was around her, and who never thought of death.