“It is good to have an end to journey toward;
but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
― Ernest Hemingway
This past weekend I attended yet another funeral–this one for a good man who fought a long, valiant crusade against the ravages of cancer. He wasn’t that old. And as I listened to the heart-breaking sobs of his gentle wife on the front pew, I was reminded of all the other funerals I’ve attended over the past year–so many funerals that I’ve lost count. Some of the deceased still wore the blush and promise of youth on their cheeks while others wore the battle scars of a long, productive life; some were the casualties of illness and disease while others were the victims of split-second wrong decisions–but all of them shared the common thread of leaving behind loved ones with heavy hearts and empty spaces that will never be filled.
How fragile and fleeting life is.
And the older I get, the more I think about that.
I doubt that I’m much different from anyone reading this. I don’t want to die, and even though I know an ending is inevitable, I still hope to put it off for as long as possible, in part because in my first five decades on this planet, I wasted way too many opportunities and too much precious time. I should have been chasing waterfalls instead of dust bunnies, I should have been spending less time grading papers and more time playing with my sons, I should have been eating fruits and vegetables instead of Ding Dongs and Cheetos, and I should have been offering more warm hugs and tender encouragement instead of cold shoulders and angry rebukes . . . and now I need more time to start living the life I should have been living all along.
Don’t we all?
As afraid as I am of dying too soon, though, I’m even more afraid of living too long–afraid of still breathing long after my health has failed me and my mind has vanished into parts unknown. And I’m afraid, sometimes, that I’ve waited too late to start worrying about such things–that the damage is already done and that the damage may be irreversible.
But just in case it’s not . . .
I’m trying hard to make amends, and I’m trying even harder to ward off any future damage. Oh, I know, that ruin and wreckage will come in due time–new lines and wrinkles, lumps and bumps, sags and bags have a tendency to materialize in front of mirrors where they weren’t visible just the day before, and the cells of disease sometimes patiently lie in wait for years before making their presence known. But maybe, just maybe, the good I am doing now will buy me a few more days, a few more years.
Before I retired a couple years ago, I wrote a preliminary “bucket list” identifying some of the things I wanted to accomplish in my hoped-for future. Many of the items were travel goals, and I have happily checked a few of those goals off my list–including a trip just a couple weeks ago to Key West, Florida. Now, I can’t tell you exactly why I’ve always wanted to go to Key West, other than in my mind I have pictured it as a place with stunning sunrises and vivid sunsets, a place where brilliantly colored roosters and iguanas and flamingos roam at large while happy-go-lucky, scantily clad natives sway to the rhythm of steel drum bands on the beach. (And it was something like that–although I never saw a flamingo, and most of the scantily clad persons I saw were most likely tourists and most certainly would have looked a little less frightening had they chosen to reveal a little less middle-aged skin.)
Before I put Key West on my bucket list and excitedly agreed to check it off that list via a 100-mile bike trip with friends, I should have first studied Florida geography. I honestly thought Key West was the southernmost tip of coastal Florida; I had no idea that Key West was an island, much less that it was the last in a long chain of islands–connected by bridges–and that in order to get to Key West from our starting point in Islamorada, I would have to pedal across dozens of bridges, including one that was SEVEN MILES LONG.
Have I mentioned before that I am truly terrified of bridges? If I have to drive across one, I white-knuckle the steering wheel and hold my breath until I’m safely on the other side; if I’m a passenger in a vehicle going across one, I close my eyes (and hold my breath) until I’m sure I’m back on solid ground. But now I was faced with riding a bicycle across one bridge after another after another . . . I obviously couldn’t hold my breath for seven miles, and I couldn’t close my eyes, either. I also couldn’t change my mind–I had committed, and I was too stubborn to back away from the challenge–but, oh, the anxiety and fear that kept me awake the night before we set out on our journey and rumbled in my stomach the next morning, the sweaty palms and racing heart that accompanied me as I pedaled across each bridge. Some of the bridges had bike paths and some of them didn’t, so in addition to dodging road debris, we were trying to steer clear of the steady stream of traffic (RVs mostly, I swear), and I was trying not to look left or right (nothing but water–sheer terror for this non-swimmer) or to look ahead (no end in sight). I tried to focus only on the back tire of the bike in front of me, and I silently repeated my husband’s instructions over and over: “Just pedal and breathe; just pedal and breathe.”
It may seem silly to some, but successfully crossing that seven-mile bridge and ultimately pedaling all the way into Key West was one of the greatest mental challenges and accomplishments of my life. I can’t say I conquered my fear of bridges–that war will forever rage on–but for those few days in Florida, I at least confronted my fear and won the battle. And I felt tremendously, gloriously, giddily alive.
And that’s the lesson I took away from the experience: It is so much better to be out “doin’ stuff,” facing fears and accepting challenges (no matter how nauseating they may initially be), than sitting at home growing old and decrepit on the couch. Fortunately, I have a husband and a few friends who feel the same way, and they are my inspiration to keep pushing (and pedaling) forward. I was the youngest one in our bicycling group–and I’m certainly not young by society’s standards–but for those few days in Florida we were all young at heart and young in spirit, and any temporary pain in our feet and seats (and our backs and knees) was glossed over by the knowledge that we had just done something pretty darn cool (and for the other members of our group, this wasn’t the first time). And every time we met someone in Key West who had heard about our journey (all those bridges, all those miles!), the response was the same: “You did WHAT?! Are you crazy?!”
No, we weren’t crazy (well, maybe just a little). I can’t speak for the rest of our group, but I felt like a major badass (yes, me!), and the craziness that others perceived was more of a determination to prove to myself that I still have so much life left to live–a lot of magnificent challenges still to conquer, a lot of great memories still to make, a lot of beautiful sunrises and sunsets still to witness, a lot of great seafood still to eat, and maybe just a few more fruity concoctions still to drink.
And even though I checked off another item on my bucket list, I have already decided that every time I check off one, I will be adding another (and, believe me, some of them are going to be real humdingers–just you wait and see). I’ve been a list-maker for as long as I can remember, scribbling daily “to do” reminders of all the boring nonsense that I feel compelled to complete–lists that I occasionally, joyously finalize and toss at the end of the day. But I have no intention of ever getting to the end of that bucket list and accepting that there’s nothing more I need or want to do.
As much as I want to believe that I am the master of my fate, though, I am reminded today–of all days–that even I may not always have the final say. For you see, today should have been my mom’s 72nd birthday. I should have been spending this day with her, showering her with gifts she didn’t need and hugs she desperately craved, putting aside my dislike of germy buffets to dine with her at her favorite Ryan’s restaurant, and over-tipping the waiter to make up for her never-ending barrage of complaints. Unfortunately, a stroke stole her away nine years ago when she was only 63–another beautiful soul taken too, too soon, creating another empty space that will never be filled. I know I have no guarantees that a similar fate won’t claim my life tomorrow, next week or sometime in the not-so-distant future when I still won’t be ready to call it quits, but I also know if I keep getting off the couch and “doin’ stuff,” I can (hopefully) improve my odds.
And I know I can’t stop the march of time any better than anyone else, but I can stubbornly refuse to let it lay claim to my mind, my body and my spirit without putting up a darn good fight. So, who’s with me? Let’s fight this good fight together.
“Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset, swiftly flow the days . . . “
from Fiddler on the Roof
My husband and me . . . at the end of the Seven-Mile Bridge . . .
breathing a very big sigh of relief.
Sunrise on Looe Key . . .
Sunset at Key West . . .
Sunrise at Key West . . .