The road well-traveled

Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking after her husband died. The book is a tragic account of how disillusioned she felt in the months following the death. I love the deep but somehow frank way she observes the world. Every page presents a string of thoughts that feels so fresh and special but also everyday and obvious. Like: whoa, but of course.

Joan with her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter Quintana Roo in Malibu, California, in 1976. Via The Telegraph.

Joan with her husband and daughter in Malibu, California. 1976. (via The Telegraph)

Didion explains how part of her brain continued to believe her husband was going to come back for months following his death. She didn’t want to throw out all of his shoes, for instance, as he’d need at least one pair if he came back. Does it get any more whoa-but-of-course than that? The notion is insane but somehow makes sense.

I’ve been walking more slowly and staring at the wall a little too long because my grandmother is suffering in the hospital right now and my mom has been talking a lot about the concept of “dying with dignity” and every time she does I feel my stomach drop. And then comes the floaty thing a brain does after an intense emotion passes through it.

I get it. I get it. At a certain point the life-saving measures are prolonging the inevitable and causing more pain. But isn’t that kind of everything in life? Prolonging the inevitable?

Dying with dignity. It’s all very noble-sounding and logical when it’s a concept discussed over dinner. But when applied to a person who has thoughts and feelings it feels less peaceful and round and more gut-wrenching and sharp. Grandma just told me last week about a woman who, years ago, came into her store, put on a fur coat, and then ran out without paying. She told me that. Last Tuesday. She’s alive. It’s the only human state I really know or understand. Maybe it’s the only human state there is.

My grandma with my sister and mom in 2013

Didion talks about “the great divide” between the alive and dead. How even if you know for a long time that someone will likely die soon, it still feels shocking when it actually happens. The emptiness that follows. The person is there in one moment – their heart and mind and presence – and then they simply are not. They are gone.

As much as I don’t want my grandmother to suffer and as much as I want her voice to be heard, my brain is so jarred by the prospect of her just….not being alive. Because right now she is. The fur coat! Tuesday! So I hold onto the notion that just one more day will do the trick because any other line of thinking feels defeatist. But maybe when it comes to the elderly who are sick and suffering, defeatism is a little more like realism.

Maybe maybe maybe. The uncertainty swirls around in my brain like a poisonous fog. Sometimes in life I really hit my stride and sometimes the maybes stick to my feet like cement blocks. And sometimes I’m running and dragging in a single day or within an hour or minute and I suppose that is just how it goes when you have the privilege of being alive. We change and oscillate and grow and backtrack and wonder and move and think like the sentient meaty skeletons that we are.

Grandma getting her haircut, as we humans do hundreds of times over the course of our lives

Grandma getting her haircut, as we humans do hundreds of times over the course of our lives

I was pedaling home from work last week when it suddenly occurred to me to steer my bike up onto the sidewalk instead of riding in the bike lane. The sidewalk on this particular mile-long stretch is a 20-foot-wide path between the busy street and the water. It’s not that bikers aren’t permitted to use it; I’d just never thought to. Within seconds I felt like the dimmest person on earth for not having done it sooner. By moving ten feet to the right my commute completely changed. Suddenly the honks were quieter, the traffic lights dimmer, the exhaust fumes a distant memory, and the pleasantness of the salty wind in my hair rivaled only the sun gently warming my now up-turned face. Ten feet? That’s all it took? How many other things am I doing slightly wrong?

If something as seemingly straightforward as my commute just needs a small perspective shift to look and feel completely different, surely we can apply this principle to something as malleable as our collective amble towards death. But, of course we can. Just go pull out an old yearbook and read some senior quotes! It’s the journey, not the destination! Life is beautiful! It’s not about the juxtaposition of life and death but rather the difference between riding in the bike lane or ten feet to the right!

But death isn’t rainbows. It’s at the end of the road where the lanes are whittled down to one. And no matter how many cute fridge magnets I read about the beauty of the journey, it’s scary as hell to actually see someone face the destination, even if it’s in old age. The rosiest of glasses can’t alleviate the weirdness that is your consciousness being zapped from your body. It’s shocking and sad and requires me to hold a lot of thoughts in my head at once: She has lived a great life. She is surrounded by loved ones. She is in immense pain. Death is a natural thing that happens to all of us. This is 0% about me. She is loved. She is old. She is ready to go if it comes to that. But it might not come to that? But it will eventually. She’s okay she’s okay she’s okay with it. If I keep all the plates spinning it kind of makes sense.

When it comes to the reality of death there isn’t a lens that makes it easier to swallow. At least not one that’s scaleable. But I guess part of being human is the complexity that comes with our self-awareness. Not everything is easy to swallow nor should it be. There is a certain beauty to something being bigger than my little mind can comprehend.

In the words of Heather Havrislesky:

“Being fixated on big uncertainties sometimes points to a more general inability to live in the moment. Being present is a skill. You have to practice it, and it doesn’t come easily for most of us…[but] feeling haunted by a big question is okay. You can’t just shove it away sometimes. But it’s also true that sometimes, you can lean into that haunted feeling and just let it be. “

12 thoughts on “The road well-traveled

  1. This was beautifully written and very much touched my heart. I too have been thinking about the “weird concept” of death lately, and it’s been causing some sad times. I stumbled upon a movie on Netflix called “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” a few weeks ago, and I can’t tell if it was the best movie I ever saw, or if it ruined my life. Either way, it’s amazing. Sending peaceful vibes in your direction.

    A friend in Michigan

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  2. I really loved this. I know exactly where you’re coming from – about five years ago my dad (who is an older gent) was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. So he’s been unwell for a while. Not only is he dealing with that, he also has failing kidneys, clogged arteries… it’s just the worst. He has good days and (very) bad ones, but he’s definitely not the dad I knew before he got sick. Looking death in the face changes you, of course, and that affects everyone around you as well. I have my own life and I know my dad wouldn’t want me to drown in the depressing pool of thoughts I have every. single. day. But it’s hard not to. I just keep myself busy, keep my plates spinning (as you said), and suddenly I find I’ve made it through another day. I’m sorry about your grandmother, please know you both have my best wishes.

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  3. My sister told me the other day she often feels like she is waiting for something..something new or something to happen that would improve her live. She is currently not liking her job.I understand that but sometimes I think there are so much more (important) things and we worry about things and blocking our minds and prevent to see things that make us happy. I really believe that apparently small things, like your pedaling experience, can make us happy or give us the feeling that your live is now. I’m trying to say that we possibly focus on wrong things and miss the opportunity to experience live, e.g. if you are in a bad mood beause of your job and you worry about that you maybe are not in the mood to take another way and you miss the beautiful nature..which maybe maked your day. AND there is nothing like family. Especially when you’re older..All the best! Lisa.

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  4. Beautiful writing, and I’ve really loved the new blog so far, Haley!
    I suggest to you Sun Kil Moon’s latest album Benji if you haven’t already. It sounds like it’s written similarly to the book you read. He is very earnest and frank with the deaths he writes about (there’s more than one song about family members dying from aerosol cans blowing up in trashcans) but it’s still beautiful and moving and deep. Cheers.

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  5. First, found your blog via Chelsea and I have really been enjoying your writing & humor!

    I’ve experienced two deaths in the past twelve months, one sudden and tragic and the other slow and expected. The Year of Magical Thinking was the only book that really spoke to me on the experience of losing someone without the comfort of a higher power. Not being religious and experiencing grief is quite strange. Words of comfort didn’t ease any heartache but stories of experience did; talking about loss (as much of a downer as it is) was the best healing. I also have a grandmother in the hospital nearing the end and while it’s terrible to watch someone slip away there’s also something incredibly beautiful about being able to love someone so much that it hurts. Sending you positive thoughts and warm sunshine to clear that fog of uncertainty. ;)

    -Fellow SF Lady

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    • Thanks so much Angela and I’m so sorry to hear about your recent experiences with death. Makes my heart hurt. I totally agree on how much harder death is without religion. Sending good thoughts your way as well.

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  6. Hi Haley,

    I’ve been reading your blog via Chelsea’s videos and I really enjoy all your thoughtful posts. Both of my grandparents passed away in recent years – my grandpa 6 years ago and my grandma last year. It was hard because we didn’t live in the same country so we only had updates about their health through phone calls and such. With my grandma’s passing, it was sad but at the same time I did feel some relief because she wasn’t in pain or hurting anymore. I don’t really identify myself as being a spiritual person but I do think that in some way they were together again so that also kept me at ease with it all. Wishing you and your family the best :)

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