Speaking from the grave, the main character of the film American Beauty, Lester Burnham says he doesn’t feel regret for his death, only intense gratitude “for every single moment of my stupid little life.”
This winter I helped my parents choose a retirement community, sell their home of 54 years and move. My father is greatly diminished by dementia; my mother is amazingly strong and alert despite rheumatoid arthritis, lung fibrosis, a recent coronary and angioplasty and 2 stress fractures in her back and pelvis. She lovingly provides 24/7 nursing care for my father who can never be alone. Her freedom is very limited, her life very hard; nevertheless, she cherishes that life. I have become acquainted with many of her 80-106 year old neighbors and found that they too cherish life despite real pain and challenge. They inspire me; I love being with them.
Wandering through the Seattle University (Jesuit) bookstore last week, I found an intriguing book of mostly 20th c. American poetry and commentary entitled Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul by Judith Valente and Charles Reynard (Loyola Press 2006). The following poem, “What the Living Do,” was written by Marie Howe in tribute to her brother recently taken by AIDS:
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some
utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the
crusty dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the
everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep headstrong blue, and the
sunlight pours through
the open living room windows because the heat’s on too high
in here, and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the
street, the bag breaking.
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday,
hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee
down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush:
This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you
called that yearning.
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and
the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss–we want more and
more and then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of
myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat
that I’m speechless:
I am living, I remember you.
I will be teaching RS lesson 10 on resisting temptation soon so I have been polling friends about particularly dangerous temptations we Mormons face. Because of my experience with my parents and my own failure to remain as grateful for life through difficulty as does my mother, I was intrigued when one friend answered that too many of us feel defeated by a less than perfect life.
We Mormons talk a lot about happiness. Curious about the subject in the journal I love, I googled Dialogue’s complete collection through 2006 DVD (available here) and found happiness a subject of 138 documents with 482 instances of the word. And that’s in a scholarly and artistic journal! Perhaps today, in spite of the real imperfections of our lives, we could hope to be gripped more firmly by Marie Howe’s “cherishing so deep,” the gratitude just to be alive.