Saturday, April 28, 2012

Seizing the Moments

The last time I saw my dad healthy was on a big family vacation at Lake George in upstate New York.  As usual, we did a lot of hanging out on the trip ("binding"), which was great.  One of the activities we did during that time was to go to the Adirondack Extreme Adventure Course, an intense rope course composed of stunts involving zip-lines, Tarzan swings, hanging nets, wobbly bridges, and suspended logs.  Through an Internet search of things to do in the area, I found information about the park and encouraged others in the family to sign up.  Unfortunately, I didn't pay much attention to the term "extreme" in the title beforehand. I also didn't realize just how high in the trees the majority of the course would be situated or how long the course was (we later found out it usually takes 3-4 hours to complete the course).  

When we got to the park, we were given instructions and a quick safety lesson, and then we lined up and started climbing.  I knew Dad was afraid of heights, but, as I said, I didn't think the course was going to be roughly twenty feet off the ground.  I was pretty nervous while we were on the course, both for my own sake and because of a few other people in the family whom I knew were struggling for various reasons, including Dad.  In the many athletic pursuits in which I had participated over the years with my dad, I had never felt such a sense of protectiveness towards him; he was the one who was typically having to assist me.  Dad was completely capable of managing the physical demands of the course - he was already in training for the Ironman triathlon at that point - but he was anxious about the distance to the ground.  He wasn't about to quit or even to admit that he was scared, though; that was a given.  As always, Dad stuck with it and finished, laughing and cutting up along the way.

No one could have possibly predicted what would be going on just 3 months later - or less than 3 months after that.  While Dad was sick, I often thought back to the time when I was watching him on the Adirondack course that day.  I could clearly remember feeling like I needed to safeguard him, to shield him or "spot him" on the bridges and ropes, maybe not as much from what was required of him along the course but more from his apprehensiveness; I didn't want him to be scared.  It was a weird kind of foreshadowing for the way we would have to guard and encourage him though the fear and instability during his fight with cancer.  

I often think about the last “this” or “that” for my dad – the last birthday card he sent me, the last time I talked to him on the phone, the last time we ran together, the last email and text he sent me.  Thinking about those things makes me so sad and, truth be told, afraid, almost to the point of being paranoid, because it leaves me wondering WHAT’S NEXT, what could be just around the corner at any point in time … I know that’s not productive, and probably not all that healthy, except that it’s part of this crazy grieving process, and I also know that it’s something I cannot avoid.

Thinking about “lasts” for my dad makes me think about the popular message Carpe Diem, seize the day.  I love the movie “Dead Poets Society” as much as the next person, but here’s what I’ve started to consider since my dad went on ahead:

People are always talking about living for the moment, enjoying each moment of each day, and trying to find joy in everything one does.  While I understand the sentiment behind this goal, I have to say that for me, the whole Carpe Diem thing doesn’t really fit.  Not all the time, and not for everything I do.  In fact, that message makes me feel like I’m falling short of something (Gratitude? Time? Perspective? Joy?) if I am not in a constant state of happiness, if I’m not smelling the roses every single second of every day.  I think it’s a good idea to have the perspective that today was a good day when one’s head hits the pillow at the end of each day, but, really, if I truly set out to live each day to its fullest, I wouldn’t be taking care of what needs to be done (going to work, occasionally cleaning the house, cooking supper, etc.).  It might make for an easier day that day, but on down the road, not so much.

I think it’s possible that a person who truly lives in such a seize-the-day state is faking it or lying, being reckless, and/or at least partially hovering close to some mental problems, in many cases.  From fighting traffic to balancing the checkbook to emptying the trash (don’t smell THOSE ROSES!) to scooping the litterbox, it’s inevitable that there are some things in life that aren’t all thatBut here’s the important part of this message:  THAT’S OK!  It doesn’t indicate weakness or failure or ingratitude or anything else.  Feeling the pain, complaining every once in a while about the grind, looking forward to the weekend doesn’t mean that one day we’ll be SORRY for anything.  

The author Dorothy Parker said, "I hate writing. I love having written."  That about sums up what I’m trying to say.  Life, and some of the things in it, are HARD sometimes.  And that’s ok to admit.  When I consider the whole “appreciate every minute of the day” thing, I think it’s so ironic that being expected to maintain that “I’m so lucky/everything is great” attitude 100% of the time just ends up being JUST ONE MORE THING on our to-do list, in the column of things that never gets to be crossed off, giving us something ELSE to worry about, to feel inadequate about, and to feel guilt over, a top-off of what could become an inevitable DOUBLE FAILURE.

I’m pretty sure that’s NOT the real message behind Carpe Diem.  I think we can and should choose to be grateful for what we have, make the most of every moment, and take a deep breath when things seem overwhelming.  I think we should appreciate the simple things in life, love one another, and do the best that we can in any situation.  I think we should Carpe whenever possible but that we shouldn’t feel guilty if that Carpe isn’t for the whole Diem.

I think time comes in two forms – Real Time, which involves the ins and outs, the struggles, the grind, the waiting in line, the countdown ‘til something else happens (5 p.m. Happy Hour, bedtime, vacation time, time to eat chocolate, etc.); and Good Time, the actual smelling-the-roses, savoring-the-coffee, basking-in-the-spender moments.  The spiritual times when we take it all in, whether we do so intentionally or accidentally.  It’s when we notice the magic, the goodness, the love, and the peace.  It’s counting your blessings, feeling lucky, no matter what the actual circumstances are.  It’s getting perspective.  Those are the moments we need to bookmark, to hoard in our memory banks for later, to seize, for just in case, for the future when we can look back and reflect on the goodness of life.

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