In the weeks before my daughter Christine died in 2000 it was sometimes hard to hang onto life – not just physical life, but the spark that is life itself. So, in the evening before we went to bed, sometimes we tried an exercise in staying alive. Could we identify what in that day had been life-giving, what life-denying?
Sometimes the ledgers were heavily weighted on the life-denying side as we sorted through the day to find a life-saving moment: A phone call from a friend. Christine had kept down one meal. A bird had tweeted a song just for her outside her window. The postman had waved. Small events, no doubt, but life-giving.
Recently I watched a TV show in which a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease was explaining how he stayed “alive” while he was dying. His suggestion was to make a list of one hundred things that gave meaning, joy, or pleasure to life. Then, though some will disappear, slowly or suddenly, one by one, you will still have 90, then 85, then 80 items that give meaning.
He recommended that people should talk about death more. I admit that people talk about sex today as freely as they do about yesterday’s ice cream sundae with a cherry on top. They know all the ingredients, how long it takes to eat, how it tastes. But death – that is left to the hospitals, doctors and nurses -- when it could be an enriching experience for all concerned.
At this stage in life I am very much aware that I am mortal. I am closer to 90 than I am to 80. And so I have begun listing my hundred points of meaning.
1. I enjoy the feeling when my tongue slips over my teeth after I have brushed them in the morning. I wait each morning for that clean smoothness, the fresh taste.
2. I enjoy having a shower, feeling the hundreds of points of sharp wet heat hit my skin—but not too much, or too long, advises my dermatologist. My skin is getting too thin, too dry for extended enjoyment under the shower-head.
3. Speaking of skin, I enjoy remembering the feel of my husband’s skin against mine even after these many years that he is gone. I’m thinking, in bed, without clothes.
4. . I enjoy eating my morning oatmeal, but not the instant kind. It’s a throwback to my childhood when I rushed home after school to be the first to grab the leftover breakfast porridge, the stuff crusted at the bottom of the pot, from long cooking. I eat mine today with skim milk, artificial sweetener – and that’s okay.
5.. Writing in my journal nearly every morning gives meaning to life. I look forward to my time with my journal. Not that I write many wise things, but it is a way of fastening down my life so that I can look at it.
6. I look forward to my quiet time with God in the morning. Years ago I didn’t have time for more than a quick prayer before I headed for the door. Now I can take time to read, to pray, to meditate. My faith sustains me. But I don’t get antsy if I don’t have time. God understands.
7. Holding a newborn baby gives me great pleasure, but it doesn’t happen often. The softness, the smells, the snuffling, the helplessness, the beauty of innocence—life has chance to try again.
8. Creating with words still excites me.
9. . I love a cup of tea brewed with real tea leaves, not the tea bag stuff made with floor sweepings. Green tea is good as is Zechung Oolong.
1 10. I like my little lists of things to do, e-mails to write, purchases to make, ideas to think about, and such stuff. I like even more crossing out items when I get them done. It makes me feel in control.
11 I like standing at my window watching that last leaf on a branch hang on. Tomorrow I will look again and the next day, again. Until it’s gone.
12 I like doing the daily crossword puzzle as well as the long Sunday one. Mission accomplished, I tell myself. My mind is still working-- to a degree.
13. I like having lunch with my son and observing how much he resembles his father whom he never knew. Heredity is powerful.
14. I like having lunch with friends who have time to talk ... and talk. None of this eat and run.
15. Which reminds me that I love stimulating conversation above many things.
16. I like listening to CDs with the old music on them. Eine kleine Wassermusik. Even Elvis Presley singing old Gospel hymns soothes my spirit.
17. gives me joy to hear a grandchild phone and say, “Hello, Grandma!” It doesn't happen often enough in this age of Facebook and Twitter.
18. I enjoy writing my weekly family email. Does anyone read it? A few say they do. But I know I am doing my part to keep the glue of family relations from drying out. Faithfulness is important.
19. This next is a non-entry. I could write it down and then cross it off. I no longer enjoy shopping. I only do it in stores that have carts I can hang on to.
At this rate, I think I could make it to 100 points of meaning. I’m well on my way. So how many have to be gone before I can say, “I have finished my course” and let go of life? Twenty? Thirty?
But maybe as I keep listing old meaningful items, I can keep adding new ones as well.
Old and new -- now that gives life meaning.