“Of course, we must accept the idea- the reality- that every man is mortal. But Jewish law teaches us that death is not meant to guide us; it is life that will show us the way.” Elie Wiesel
“Spring is so ephemeral,” I tell her yesterday as we walk to school. “Do you know what ‘ephemeral’ means?” I tell her that spring is my favorite season, that “ephemeral” used to be my favorite word, and that her dad used to joke and pick a really unpleasant sounding word and say it was his favorite word: ” Oh yeah, well, my favorite word is cantankerous,” he used to say. The trees are all blossoming already. I squint my eyes to see just the patches of color- yellow from the forsythias, plum from the Japanese maples and pink and white from the magnolias. Even though it looks like spring, it doesn’t feel like it yet, and with the cold temperatures we’ve been having, I don’t feel like I’m getting to enjoy the blossoms in the fullness of spring. By the time it warms up, the petals will have rained down already and we’ll move straight into summer, making an already ephemeral season even more fleeting. And then I wonder- do I love spring more than the other seasons because it feels the most fleeting? If it lasted as long as the winter months- these blossoms that make the trees into giant upright bouquets, would I savor them less?
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said “Mostly it is loss which teaches us the worth of things.” Really what Schopenhauer is saying is the familiar, “You don’t know what you’ve got, ’til it’s gone.” And of course that’s true; we’ve all experienced the newfound, total appreciation we feel for something once it is no longer ours. And so, it may be that we’re able to place a higher value on things that we know we will lose.
Losing a husband and growing a child simultaneously will tempt you to live life through this lens of loss. When you lose someone suddenly, your mind vividly replays the final days and weeks that led up to their departure. Everything that was said and done in those days takes on a double meaning. “Let’s have a nice dinner together. This is our last dinner as a family,” I had said the night before he left on the trip. It was our last dinner. Afterwards, there was a sifting through of every old letter, of his clothes, of albums and journals and song lyrics- as if trying to decipher some clue, some foreshadowing, some answer to the unanswerable. And after such an intense study, it becomes natural to wonder as you go on in your present life, “Is this going to be the last time I see him or her?” “Am I going to be looking at that photograph or video after they are gone?” “Why are we talking about what would happen if I died? Is this some kind of foreshadowing or preparation?” You will seem to appreciate things because you anticipate loss around every bend, but contentment alludes you. Mostly, you are terrified.
Having a child and watching her grow, especially in a time where everyone carries a camera and video camera in their pocket or purse, means you will also learn to anticipate loss. You will feel blindsided often by the developmental changes. That suddenly he’s crawling and then walking, and then jumping. By the realization that you don’t have a toddler, or a preschooler anymore, that you haven’t used the stroller in a very long time without even noticing it, or that your baby is now a child who soon will hit that “awkward stage.” When she plays dress up in her princess wedding gown you think, “I’d better take a picture- I can use this at the wedding shower, or in a slideshow at the wedding.” You take videos where you prompt her to say mispronounced words like “egmire” which is supposed to be admire. The old ladies have told you time and time again, every time you see them right after they ask how old she is: “They grow up so fast. Enjoy her…mine are all grown.” Deep in your gut you know their words, so you take photos, you store away all of her artwork and try to write down the funny things she says. You watch old videos sometimes and stare at the child who still couldn’t say the “s” sound and still had that baby head and still called you mommy instead of mom. Because you will lose her at every age, you will stare at her after she falls asleep- even though you’re exhausted- you’ll sit and watch her breath for just a moment more. “Enjoy her, mine are all grown.” You cherish her because you are assured she will not always be this way. But oh, it is bittersweet.
This expectation of loss, I have found, takes me away from the present. Instead of being fully in the moment, I am already envisioning myself looking through these photographs I’m taking in an album. I see my present through the future- making it the past. “It had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past,” writes Virginia Woolf in “To the Lighthouse.” As a teenager, I had typed out that sentence on a typewriter and hung it up at my desk because it was sad and it was true. There’s so much in our modern vernacular about being grateful, and mindful, and present, but being present because the present is fleeting, means you will carry around at your core terror and sadness rather than peace or joy.
It is possible to adore spring, or your children, or being alive- not just because they are ephemeral and might be taken from you, but because they are beautiful, because they are good, and because they are a gift. I part ways with Schopenhauer- letting the miraculous, not loss, be my teacher.
For the first year or so after my husband died, (and even now), I would often slip into a daydream of what it would be like if he reappeared and walked through the door at this moment. I would take it as far as the moment our eyes met, the moment of our embrace- the tearful reunion. It wasn’t important in the daydream why he was alive or how we’d been given the chance at the reunion- maybe there was a mistake all along and they’d mixed him up with someone else- maybe he’d gotten lost in Europe, or maybe he was resurrected. Either way, it was euphoric to see him walking, breathing, living.
It felt such a huge leap of faith to comprehend that he was dead and buried in those early days- this 33 year old man whom I’d spoken to on the phone the day before – that eventually it felt an equal leap of faith to imagine that he had ever walked around so freely in his body- untethered by cords, without battery or any source of power but the electricity in his own beating heart.. I remember the moment I realized that if I was going to mourn his death, I had to acknowledge that his very existence had been a total miracle – just as I imagined it would be a miracle if he walked through the door now.
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle,” said Albert Einstein. When you enter the realm of the miraculous, you leave behind chronos time, that which is lived in chronology, and enter kairos time (“the supreme moment” in ancient Greek). You can proclaim something good solely because it is good- not just because it will disappear. There was no sadness in God’s proclamation of the goodness of his creation. He declared it good simply because it was.
Of course, we are mortal, and the impermanence of our experience will always war against the eternity set in our hearts. We can’t live in denial. “All men are like the grass, and all their glory is like flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall.” The blossoms will fall and we acknowledge that… because it brings us humility and wisdom. But what we hold onto, is not the fleeting, but the miraculous, not chronos time, but kairos, not loss, but wonder. My blossoms, my time as a mother of a young child, my life, are all ephemeral. But first, they are miraculous. In our day to day lives, it’s hard to hold this in the forefront of our minds. It’s sometimes hard for me to touch that understanding I had when I daydreamed of seeing my husband alive. But there are small moments when kairos breaks into chronos. We find ways. Sometimes I say to my daughter, “I can’t believe I’m alive.” “And we’re not plugged in or anything,” she adds. And sometimes I tell her something my husband said to me on the very first day that we met, “I can’t believe I’m here with you.”