I recently had a conversation with my family about life. It weaved between religious and non-religious. It was one of the best conversations I ever had with them, not because the religious half won over the other, or vise versa. It was great because it made me realize the importance of questioning. It made me realize that it’s okay to not always have the answers. In fact I sometimes wake up and think, “God, I have no answers. Just questions.”
For me, my question has always been around fulfilling my purpose. In June I celebrated my birthday by asking my friends to volunteer by serving dinner at the Cornerstone Community Outreach, an organization that reminded me of the House of Bread, another organization that my mother used to volunteer at and helped my family when I was growing up.
Truth is I’ve never felt anything except for the urge to do more. Leading up to my birthday I had this fear that I may not have enough time to help someone I could have helped. That perhaps I haven’t shared enough or cared enough. I felt as though I was just starting my journey. Where old friends remind me of the past, new friends challenged my ideas, and my family members remind me that I still have questions. I selfishly felt as though I was using my friends to fulfill this fear– that the more people I could get to help the more people we could feed.
Life has a funny way of rewinding and fast forwarding at the same time, like an old VHS tape, it may be scratched and twisted, but the images play out in the end.
Growing up, I always wanted to travel the world, make documentaries, and write. In the process of fulfilling this dream I grew to love my characters- people I met huddled together during cold winters, families I spent hours recording at the dinner table pretending to be a long lost cousin, and new friendships built on paths crossed.
One such person was an elderly woman staying at one of H.O.M.E.’s intergenerational buildings. I was living at the Pat Crowley House as a Resident Assistant, where I made meals one weekend a month and served dinner once a week to the elders in the building in exchange for free room and board. Lynn (not her real name) had just turned ninety when I first met her. She was a petite Jewish woman with sparks of energy pouring from her veins.
When she was in a good mood, I would turn up the radio in the kitchen at night as I was washing the dishes and she would stand by her walker and show off a dance step or two. Often I would sit with her, deep in conversation as she drank tea with biscuits after her meals, or sit in the living room glaring at the black and white television screen as we laughed through one of her old movies. When she was in a bad mood she called her son, often insisting that he drop everything and come see her. I found the relationship amusing. He consoling her with a long conversation over the phone; always being the gentleman by promising to stop by the next day.
He arranged for countless visits on the weekends and outings that required us to wake up Lynn early so she could double and triple check her outfit for the day. The truth is, I later realized that was love. That most of the other elders lacked that type of support from their family members, and some didn’t have anyone to call and complain to.
As Lynn grew older, she complained more to her son. Everything irritated her- from the food to the sound of the vacuum being moved across the hallway as she sat in her room during weekend cleanup times. Sometimes her son would visit and she would yell out “I’m dying!”
“You’re not dying.“ Her son replied.
“What did you have for lunch?” He often asked, changing the subject.
“The food was horrible. I can’t take this anymore- I’m going to die!” She would interject. “What more do you want from me?”
This went on for months; in fact it became a running joke. Sometimes she would remind us of her death, and we would all respond with her sons words, “You’re not dying.”
“What more do you want from me? I’m ninety-one!” She would add, before we could change the conversation.
She had lived a long life. She spoke of her late husband, of mailing condoms to soldiers during the war, of how carefree life was back then.
And as soon as it began, it ended. She would go a few months without mentioning death. Then as fast as it disappeared it returned, and again she would remind us that death was near, always at the door waiting to come in.
Suddenly, one day she didn’t tell us she was going to die. Death just barged in like a burglar and caught us all off guard.
I recalled how frail she had gotten in the two years I had been there. I thought of how I had refused to accept just how close death was during our long conversations. How I ignored the gray to white streaks of hair, how her hands seemed to move through her items, never really grasping but dancing as though everything was too heavy for her frail bones. How she no longer discussed her weekend outings as adventures to a distant land but instead welcomed them with a sigh of burden and less of relief.
I thought of Lynn during my birthday because I was reminded that time stops ticking for all of us. That I should live today like I will die tomorrow.
I have prepared for the possibility that death may barge into my life. Unlike Lynn, I do not yell out “I’m dying!”, but I realize the importance of preparing for the inevitable.
I have learned to love each moment. To forgive even more than love. I imagine and pray that my life will be a long one, that in my nineties I too will call my son to complain about food and demand weekend outings. But, most importantly I am reminded that my destiny is not complete. That to fully fulfill it requires preparing for death. That my mission of helping as many people as possible depends on how much time I have. That time will not stop for me, but instead run out as death walks up my doorsteps.
That today and everyday, I will keep asking God, “What more do you want from me?”