Because Life is Short and I Get It Now

I’m re-posting this for so very many reasons, not the least of which is I’ve come face to face with the idea that a lifetime doesn’t last forever, it just doesn’t. And that’s OK. But it’s sublime, too. In October of last year, my dad made it to the ER just in time to address a heart situation that was dire and deathly. So…I think:


“Do you think of your life?”


I couldn’t ask, because we don’t talk that way. But I watched his eyes squint from my peripheral vision.


“Do you think of your life, Dad?” The words seeps from my fingers instead. It’s the only way to get them down. It’s not something I say out loud.


It used to be we couldn’t talk that way simply because he wasn’t home much. A business trip, a move, a plan of some sort. He felt best in motion; most alive I supposed. Less likely to think about…death? Whatever it was, he couldn’t sit still. I began to imagine that if he sat immobile for any length of time, he’d fade away, slip through life.


He sits more now, and I pretend not to notice.


He calls weekly with news of a death in the family, a cancer, a sudden illness. My Uncle Smitty choked during lunch, suffered cardiac arrest, and died a week later. He wasn’t much younger than my dad; we send condolences and flowers and wonder:


“Do you think of your life, Dad?”


His best friend heard from the oncologist. The lung cancer howls from a safe distance. Today, he’s OK. I look through mustard yellow photo albums; he and my dad lounge against one of the cars of the day, smoking, laughing, living.


I don’t think I want the photos from now; the needles in the arm, the shadows in the eyes.


My dad lives with my step-mom in a condo complex filled with old people. He became president of the condo association because everyone kept dying, and they couldn’t keep anyone in office for long. He laughs when he says this; always a joke on his lips, a pretend heart attack for laughs, a brush-off of imminent death.


During a recent joke, a darkness flits across his face, a temporary jolt, a pause in the laughter, a realization he wishes I don’t see.


So we watch TV. His old friends are gone: Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, John Wayne, but there’s a show on PBS about country music.


Even his beloved Kenny Rogers looks different.


He falls asleep in the recliner, a comforting image from my childhood, when his loud snoring assured me he was home.


In between business trips, my dad reluctantly visited the doctors my mom made him see. In the days and hours before his appointments, he yelled and resisted and teased, “If I’m going to die, I don’t want to know it.”


But there was the diabetes and the high blood pressure; the ulcers and the dangerous cholesterol. The chicken-fried steak for breakfast and the homemade french fries for dinner, the forgetting to take his pills and the zig-zag blood sugar dips.


My healthy mom died before he did.


I don’t know if that’s what causes his shadows.


Last year, he began sending his children stories. Long-forgotten and unspoken. Our lineage, our hometown in Norway, great-grandma Josie’s predilection for liquor. One email, titled simply “Mom and I” recounted the story of how they met in such vivid detail I read through tears. It began:


Hi Guys,

Seeing as I am on a roll, I thought you guys might like to hear how Mom and I met and moved into marriage. This is a tough one…


I wonder what it was like for him to write.


Last month, my dad returned from his childhood home in Sparta, Wisconsin. My step-mom’s sister-in-law passed away a month earlier and her house needed to be cleared out. No one in the family was much alive to complete the job. He and my step-mom spent three weeks sorting and cataloging and dumping. They managed to see some of their high school friends while in town and my dad called me on the way home, melancholy.


“Not many of us are healthy anymore” he told me.


I knew better than to respond. He doesn’t talk that way too much, and I opened my heart to give his words some space.


A beat, not even a minute later, and he began to joke again; but I’d glimpsed the shadow.


I thought of all this the other day when I watched a movie that took place in the 70s. The soundtrack evoked that first stingpunch of summer love, the must of the gymnasium during P.E., the cloudiness of marshmallow fluff. My soul alternated between flying and crying. So many days, so many days…turning into…another kind of day. A year, a decade, a mustard yellow photo album.


Or the dry bite of bread pudding every day for a year when money grew tight, the dark smudge of newspaper ink smeared on fingers picking up news of World War 11, the phantom ache of a sister plucked by cancer in the middle of the night.


A million things like that, singular and collective; each of us alone, each of us the same with the thought, with the letters, with the shadows. My dad’s unmouthed questions are mine now and on it will go. One day my daughter may write them like me and on it will go. On and on and on.


But today the words sear into my gut:


Do you think of your life?


18 Responses to “Because Life is Short and I Get It Now”

  1. Becky says:

    Oh, Deb. you break me in such beautiful ways.

  2. Green Girl in Wisconsin says:

    Ah, that breaks my heart. I hope he thought only of joy and no regret.

  3. So I’m going to share this with you even though it completely freaks me out; but what good is all this reading and writing and thinking if we aren’t being honest, right?


    I have always thought ahead about big stuff coming up in my life. Good things, bad things, exciting or scary.

    I would consciously think about the future and tell myself, “There will be a moment where you will actually be______” – let’s say running a marathon or giving birth or something much smaller like giving a speech or whatever.
    Then I’d further tell myself, “Try to remember when you’re in that moment what it felt like to be back here thinking about it.”

    Weird right? Maybe. Yeah. I guess it’s part of my wanting to be present and purposeful and in the moment but also not.

    Anyway these “future” moments always come up more quickly than I think they will. Nine months and boom. I’m having the baby. Four months and boom. I’m in the middle of the race. How did the time fly between the thinking and the doing? Is there some kind of collapse in the universe? I don’t know.

    So the other night – out of nowhere – it occurred to me that at some point, I’d be dying. It would actually be happening.

    And then I realized that the time between now and then would – at some point – be gone. Fleeting. Like a blink.

    I am so not okay with death. Like, at all.
    So how can I slow this whole shit down?
    Tell me.

  4. Galit Breen says:

    Oh my, Deb- this is stunning and heart breaking and all of the good things in between.

    This line “I opened my heart to give his words some space” slays me.


  5. Kerstin says:

    How very captivating. Makes my heart ache. Makes me think of so many people that loved their life and lost it way too soon. Good friends, mentors, snatched away in their 50s, just like that.
    Every once in a while I think about my own mortality and I really don’t know how to handle it. Not for myself, but for those I leave behind. Did I prepare everything? Will they find all the papers and know what to do? Will my kids be alright?
    I quickly try to think of something else, because I just don’t have any answers. I hope I don’t need any, because I’ll live long enough to see my kids grow and build their own lives and nothing else will matter.
    Then I think of a few dear people I have lost and it just kills me that they’re gone. There is just nothing you can do. Except cherish the memories, the moment.
    My biggest fear – having regrets.

  6. OpinionsToGo says:

    Your post brought back so many memories of my dad. He used to call me when an actor passed away…an actor from the 40’s 0r 50’s and say “Jo, We lost another one!”
    He read 3 newspapers a day and was a master of trivia. I hate to brag but, I have now assumed his role…He would love that!
    Yes, I think about life…every day!

  7. Jennifer says:

    Beautiful and true.

  8. heidi says:

    I’m speechless here. This is moving and true and soulful.

  9. San Diego Momma says:

    Thank you for these lovely lovely comments. And Julie? I do the same thing. To a T. Fun fact: I remember always wondering where I’d be when it turned 2000, like how old I’d be and what I might be doing. From the time I was a kid I did it. “I’ll be 31 in 2000, I’ll be 31 in 2000…”

    2000 was twelve years ago. It came and went and now I’m zipping to 50. If I knew how to slow it down, I’d give you my secret. All we can do is be present.


  10. I do, but same as most I think of it fleetingly. I know how important it is to sit and reflect, but at the back of my head I know the implications afterwards would be to face it and act accordingly.

  11. Colleen Lanin says:

    Gorgeous writing. I would love to read the email your dad sent about how he met and married your mom.

  12. Danielle says:

    What a great post. While I analyze and think of my life often I haven’t thought of the lives of my parents and grandparents much over the years. Thank you for your beautiful writing.

  13. Sondra says:

    Tears. You have me in tears and this is beautiful and touching and perfect.

  14. Carolyn West says:

    Wow. I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. When I was pregnant with my first daughter 13 years ago I found myself going to funerals every month. A generation was dying out, literally. We’ve had a good run these past many years but now I’ve started thinking about the old timers that are still around. They are in their 80’s now and who knows how much longer they will be here. It won’t be long until I am part of the older generation. It’s definitely sobering.

  15. What a wonderful and beautiful post! It was heartbreaking to read this. It brought back a lot of memories of loved ones lost along the way. It’s also a great reminder to enjoy what we have and not take things for granted.

  16. Was worthy of a re post. I remember reading it the first time. I hope your dad is doing well Deb.

  17. becky says:

    The thought of losing my dad leaves me paralyzed in fear. I so want my kids to grow up knowing him. But he’s 70 and you never know how much time is left. I wish we lived closer.

  18. maggie may says:

    this is a beautiful essay. thank you for sharing it with us.

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