Of Spring and Impermanence

It’s really beginning to feel like Spring. I know that the weather is due for a turn next week and that more snow is possible but right now it’s cool and balmy out. Squirrels are scampering in the street and birds are twittering in the trees.

A year ago today I was on a plane to Miami with my friend Lydia who was getting married. I spent a full week in Florida, most of it in Key West where I stayed in a B&B with my friend Timbre. We’d each rented scooters for the week and at night when I got tired of the wedding parties and Key West drinking culture, I’d hop on my scooter by myself and zoom along the darkened stretch of road that hugged the curve of the ocean. I felt freer than I ever had in my entire life.

A year ago I was in a pretty amazing place in my life. I was living alone by the beach and I was about to enter into the final quarter of my grad school program. I was working in two different clinics and on the cusp of quitting my job to write my book.

At night I tucked myself into bed and clicked off my little bedside lamp and I knew that I was in a unique time in my life. I could sense the potency and the impermanence of it all. I couldn’t have guessed that a year later I’d be living in a beautiful home by the river in Chicago, that I’d be in love, and that I’d be working as  a grief counselor for hospice, spending my days holding the hands of the dying.

I had dinner with a girlfriend last night who is med school to be a nurse practitioner and we had a long conversation about how we go about assimilating these experiences and this knowledge of illness and disease and death into our beliefs about the world and ourselves.  She spent all of Monday administering chemotherapy to cancer patients and I’d spent the week meeting dying and bedridden patients in their homes. The juxtaposition of the two of us last night drinking sangria at a trendy tapas bar was stark but also a vital part of accepting the impermanence of it all.

I rode the train home last night by myself, tipsy and starry-eyed by my life, by this time we are allotted to live and love and give.  It’s the falling in love that makes me want to stay here as long as possible.

A year ago, alone on a scooter in a pale blue linen dress and jean jacket, winding along the darkened curve of an ocean drive, impermanence was something easier to accept.

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Quiet Afternoons

I went to see my favorite patient this afternoon. I was in a hurry on my way there, stopping at Trader Joe’s for a moment to pick up a last ingredient needed for a dinner I’m cooking for friends tonight. I grabbed a bouquet of bright, yellow tulips for my patient, got lost on my way to his house, even though I’ve been there a dozen times, and parked while checking email on my phone.

All of this quite thoughtless behavior snapped into focus when I walked in the door to find my favorite patient in a rapid state of decline. It had been over a week since I’d seen him last, and although I know that he’s dying — he is after all a hospice patient — finding him in this state didn’t stop tears from brimming in my eyes, the tulips in my hand slowly lowering to my side.

I’ve been visiting this patient every week since January and he’s just lovely. A retired, 95 year old reverend, we all just call him the Reverend. He’s wise and funny and has wonderful stories and each week when I visit I pull up a chair to his and we sit in the window watching the snow fall and sipping coffee.

Today he dozed in and out of consciousness, his lids falling shut only moments after asking, "How is my sweet Claire today?" His hired caregiver had stepped out while I was there and the Reverend and I sat alone together in the quiet afternoon sunlight. The classical station played on low in the corner and the Reverend’s hand was warm in mine.

At one point he sputtered, opened his eyes, and said, "You’re the girl with dead parents." I nodded, tears spilling over my cheeks. It’s something I’m long used to — not having parents — and something I can usually talk about freely and with ease — but the look on his face and the squeeze of his hand suddenly made me feel like a little girl. "I’m just so sorry that happened," he said. And I knew he was. But before I could clear the lump in my throat to speak he had fallen asleep again.

And so I sat, hunched over in my chair so that I could reach my hand out to hold his, and I watched him sleep. Tears dripped down onto my skirt and a swatch of sun fell across my lap.

I know we can’t go about living every day like it’s our last — the world just wouldn’t work that way — but all the same I’m so grateful for moments like this when all that matters is my hand warm in someone else’s.

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In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

I had strange dreams last night. Of cleaning out nests of spiders from the chandeliers of my last Chicago apartment. Of elephants stampeding down Ashland as I tried to drive home. Of coming face to face with a giant, angry gorilla, and of closing my eyes and remembering to breathe, breathe.

Spring is upon the city. In the subtlest of ways. Yesterday walking home from the train there were kids playing in the park, squirrels shedding their winter weight as they scampered up and down the branches of a tree. The very beginnings of buds beginning to show along those same branches. And a warm light that floods through the living room in the late afternoon.

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