I worry that all my thoughts have been thought before by someone smarter, and written down in words that are more insightful than mine. If I worry enough about this, I don’t write what I’d like to say. Today, one week into the new year, I’m writing a few things that I k now have been thought and said before but, tant pis, I’m going to say it again.
The first is a word about grief. This thought is plainly second-hand. That is, it came from a dream that wasn’t even mine. It was my daughter’s. In it, as she reported it, I’m with my late husband and – this part is hard to believe – Kobe Bryant. My husband leaves and I say to Kobe, “I don’t want to forget that Paul was here.” “it’s not about forgetting,” says Kobe. “It’s about living your life.”
Really. Kobe Bryant?
I’ve considered the source and decided that it’s my daughter channeling Paul. And he’s right, of course. Grief is not the sole vehicle for remembering. Happiness isn’t premised on forgetting.
Second, there’s the matter of aging. Like grief, aspects of this subject have been the subject of my earlier posts. In fact, it’s inevitably a subject I confront every day, though not always thoughtfully. So, too, do a raft of other people, it seems, and many of them study it and write about it. More studies have surfaced that suggest that friendships and socializing contribute to longevity. Other researchers credit crossword puzzles, walking, non-smoking, red wine, cardiovascular exercise, a Mediterranean diet, learning and a positive attitude. I find all of these studies suspect as they tend to corroborate the expectation that the values of the researchers make for a long and happy life. In my close family, the sole member of the generation before mine is my 97-year-old aunt. She has dementia, aphasia, diabetes, a brain tumor, a towering white blood count and is obese. Twice divorced, she had no children and – how to say this nicely? – was not dearly beloved by her niece (me) and nephews (my brothers). She was always included in family events but didn’t make them happier. Indeed, the stories about my aunt’s snide criticisms and condescension are legion. As she became my responsibility seven years ago, I learned she had some friends from her teaching days and her volunteer ushering at Carnegie Hall. But they are gone now, and her companions are three aides who treat her with love and provide capable care, for which I am deeply grateful.
My aunt’s longevity puzzles me. Her lifestyle matched few of the predictive factors associated with old age (though she apparently was never a smoker and she did enjoy music). As her brother lived to be 98, perhaps there is some genetic component yet to be discovered that overrides all of the more obvious life style factors. Be that as it may, I will continue to avoid red meat, walk my dog, do the New York Times crosswords and cultivate optimism, whether or not validated by experience. These seem inherently good things, so I understand why researchers want them to matter statistically. I do too, as it enables me to believe I have some control in the matter.
Third, a word about my dog, Pippin. He is teaching me dog-speak. This is good not only because it fosters communication between us, but also because it demonstrates that, at 70, I am still in a learning mode. Which promotes longevity (see above). It has taken me three years to learn the language, in part because he’s still perfecting it. However, I understand the following: a whine with a sit means he wants to eat, preferably a treat; a bark, on his four feet, facing me, means “let’s go out.” (The urgency of this bark, understandably, varies.) A bark on the move signals someone or something at the front door. A whine on his feet facing me means “I’d like to sit in your lap.” Scratching on my wastepaper basket tells me it’s time to shut down my computer to play with one of his pitiful toys. This is quite an impressive vocabulary, covering, as it does, most of his life activities, and thus, many of mine. I’m trying to make progress with communication going in reverse. That is, when I say “come,” he should do that. This hasn’t met with great success. “Wait” seems to be meaningful to him and, fortunately, he correctly interprets “no.” He gets that he’s supposed to go up or down the stairs ahead of me when I say “go,” usually accompanied with a sweep of the hand. The rest, well, not so much. He’s quite adorable in his new sweater.
Fifth: family. I was reminded throughout the Christmas-New Year-Hanukah holidays, as we swept away the detritus of meals and gifts, that what remains is a family rich in its variables, experience and love. My extended family is Jewish, Catholic and Lutheran, black and white. We hail from the north and south, east and west of America and find our roots in Ireland, Russia, Hungary, Argentina, Israel, Canada, Germany and Africa. We are vegetarians, pescatarians and omnivores. We are second, third and fourth generations. We are married, single, widowed, divorced and partnered. We are toddlers, teens, middle aged and seniors.
We come from a nuclear family, an extended family, an adoptive family by acclamation. We are in-laws and, I’m forced to admit, some are outlaws. We are healthy, powerful, frail and failing. We are at the outset of our lives and contemplating the ending. We exasperate and exhilarate each other, we fail, we achieve, we advocate and protest, we leap tall buildings in a single bound, and we stumble. All in the course of a year.
We reach across continents to friends and relatives of four generations in Ireland, Germany, Argentina, Canada and Japan. We discover new friends around the corner in our new neighborhoods and treasure the friends of childhood where we once lived. We multiply faster than our losses. We are downsizing, we are expanding.
We are a family with new roles, new connections, new places we call home. We see ourselves differently than we did 70 years ago when few of us were living, but we repeat the stories of how we came to this country with awe. We reaffirm they are our stories and that this defines our core of courage, ingenuity, loyalty and love. Whether or not I see the torch pass again to the next keepers of our traditions, or recognize them in the next generation, what I see now is good and hopeful, free and alive to change. May the year ahead continue to grow our vision of who we are and extend the embrace of our family, remembering that who we become is a new iteration of who we were.
I hope the reader’s recognition of familiar thoughts and feelings, of gratitude and joyfulness, and perhaps a tinge of sorrow, makes up for the lack of originality. Happy new year.