In just over 3 months, I will become 3 years younger than my father was when he died without warning. The closer I get to that number, the more sobered I am by how young he was. Even more than that, I am sobered by how much he accomplished during his life, and—comparatively speaking—how much I have not.
I have not nurtured connection with an intimate partner for any length of time, let alone for almost 30 years. I have not managed to become someone’s priority, to inspire love notes, or to trust that someone would stick around if we had a had a knock-down-drag-out fight. I have not procreated and then lovingly raised children. I have not read them stories, tutored them in homework, or made space for them to be curious and feel cherished. I have not purchased a house or financed a mortgage with enough stability that the people residing in that home are free from anxiety regarding where they will lay their heads at night.
While I have earned an advanced degree, it is not in a field that helped advance diagnostic and curative medicine, but instead is one that garners little respect, is considered unimportant, and often is believed not to require much skill. I have not managed to sustain a collegiate teaching career. Nor have I contributed to my field of study in a way that merits posthumous accolades from my professional organization. (Indeed, my professional organization knows of my existence only through archived membership rosters). While I have accumulated copious skills, I have not monetized them—or my training, really—in a way that advances long-term goals. My hobbies have not produced work that became part of a national treasure that was recently restored, preserved, and had a book written about it.
The life I’ve curated feels so small compared to all of that, and what I've listed isn't even the complete picture.
I cannot see how, in the next three years—or even in the next 30—I’d realistically be able to close that gap. In order not to be crushed by the weight of unmet potential and expectation, I look toward my own life, to acknowledge what I have done.
I have known heartbreak. I am acquainted with being passed over, with foolishly investing in, or even loving people who are never likely to love me back. Still, I have loved. I have mourned losses—some that still cause my breath to catch in my throat. I know what it feels like to have life shrink in a heartbeat and to be a little bitch-slapped by circumstances. And though there are some setbacks that I have not yet managed to move past, I have managed to pick up, rebuild, and move forward—even if the forward motion a little clumsy.
I am still here.
I have hiked the mountains of Hiroshima before dawn to see the sun rise over the clouds that sink low beneath the peaks. I have climbed to the top of the Duomo and looked out over the city on a day with brilliant blue sky. I have sipped tea slowly with people in an arid garden in China. An old man, whose name I will never know, kissed my cheek outside of a bank in Tirana. Later, in Korçe and Pogradeç, I learned to savor Turkish Coffee and unhurried games of backgammon. I have watched the sun set over the Aegean Sea.
I lingered into the wee hours of morning on a dock in Catalina to laugh and watch shooting stars with a friend. I raised my voice in song to celebrate the weddings of friends or to help others celebrate life. I have composed words and sent them to the mailboxes and desks—some belonging to friends, some not. And while I don’t know how those words have landed, I knew they were right to send. I have made things of beauty, and while they are unlikely to ever be housed in a museum, they have been enjoyed, and some have even been memorable.
People on two different continents have re-named me: “praiseworthy fragrance” and “maker of safe spaces.” I have cultivated gardens even in limited plots of soil; that has made me more whole. And I have cultivated friendships, a few of which merit dropping everything when it’s needed. Those, too, make me more whole. I have gathered people who would not have otherwise connected for leisurely meals, and I’ve delighted to see them discover common ground and mutual enjoyment. I have learned to laugh more easily and be present with people who are in pain. I have chosen to be generous even when it’s foolish, because I have grown to dislike the feel of myself when I am stingy.
I have been a student of people and their stories. And for nearly 3 decades I have been a student—perhaps a poor one, but a student all the same—of ancient texts and poetry that ask me to believe this: that the metrics by which our society assesses and assigns worth are not very consistent or reliable or fair; they depend upon chance as much as they do on choice, and often they diminish important things that ought to be seen and celebrated. These stories and songs exhort me to believe that life—no matter its trappings—is a gift, that to rise in the morning with breath in one’s lungs should inspire songs of gratitude.
On some days, that’s easier to believe than others.
When I look at what I have done in light of what I have not, it’s hard to imagine that my collection of days matter all that much, or—in the grand scheme of things—that they amount to much significance.
But I know they are meaningful.
And I am still here.
And I still have breath in my lungs.
How can I keep from singing?
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