The renowned poet Marie Howe wrote a gorgeous poem titled “What the Living Do.” In it she cites all the ordinary, everyday things that happen. The grocery bag rips open on the way from the car to the house, and everything falls on the ground, you spill your coffee on your new white T shirt, your engine light keeps flashing, and you keep reminding yourself to take it in for a checkup. But then the car stops in the middle of Lambert’s Cove Road and your cell phone isn’t charged. And you had never made that call.
I loved the poem so much I decided I would write my own. This list I just made is not hers. It’s mine. But that’s as far as I got. What the living do is not inspiring me as much as what the dead do.
I am always asking my mother (who died 12 years ago), Where are you? Are you with Dan, I repeat for the 900th time. My son Dan died 10 years ago.
When a bird flies close to my windshield, I say, Dan, is that you? If yes, fly back. Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t.
When he was 9 months old and diagnosed with diabetes, and we were told he was the youngest diabetic in medical history, we knew the sand in his hourglass was going to flow through a larger hole. We knew we had to savor every moment we had with him. But his moments were hard to savor. First he screamed for two years, then he learned how to manipulate us, using all the power we had given him. He could get anything he wanted because, oh, poor Dan, he’s a sick boy. He even got us to change the rules in baseball. Dan got five outs, not three like all the other kids. After all, Dan could die young. And not ever get to first base.
But then it turned out that 7-year-olds don’t like to rule the roost. They actually thrive on boundaries and the word no. Who knew?
And with all that unearned power, he got angry. He got angry at his teachers when they expected him to turn his papers in on time. After all, he was a diabetic. And then, later, he got angry at his bosses when they expected him to show up for work on time. After all, he had to do his insulin shot and test his blood sugar and have a low-carb snack before he even got dressed for the job.
And then at 22 he was diagnosed with MS. That’s when the shift really hit the fan. The anger turned to rage and the boy turned into a man and the moments turned even less savorable.
That’s when there was nothing everyday about my living. So I wouldn’t have been able to write about what the living do. And have you believe it.
I once read a thing that started with what the dead want you to know. The next line was, “We’re not dead.”
So maybe the dead have ordinary, everyday experiences too. But I never imagined dead people driving, let alone having their engine lights go on. Certainly, they are not spilling coffee on their new white T shirts. ARE THEY EVEN DRINKING COFFEE?
Why can’t we know this stuff? Why is it such a secret, death? The big mystery. I don’t think humans do well with not knowing.
Sometimes uncertainty is the ultimate challenge for me. The Roman philosopher Tacitus said, “The desire for certainty stands before every great and noble enterprise.” I certainly don’t want my desperate need to know to come before any of my great and noble enterprises.
I know before Dan actually left his body, he surrendered and became a noble enterprise unto himself, somewhat of an enlightened being, someone filled with gratitude and love. Somehow he started to see the brilliance in the everyday things.
The truth is he was a teacher for me, and I’m beginning to make peace with the magic of the unknowable moment.
But this death thing. I’d like a little more info.
In the meantime, that poem? About what the living do? Instead of writing it, maybe I should take a page from Dan’s playbook and just live it.