A little over one year ago I began my very first (long-awaited) sabbatical as a university professor – four months ago today I arrived in Ecuador. I get lots of well-meaning people saying things like ‘Time must be whizzing by for you,’ and ‘I can’t believe you’ve been away X amount of time – I’m sure you can’t either!’ I nod and smile and laugh (or do the equivalent in FB and email). This sense of time escaping us is something we all share. But the truth is, this has absolutely been the longest year of my entire life.
One year ago today, my Mom left this Earth.
The lines from the poem by Dylan Thomas have been in my head a lot lately:
Do not go gentle into that good night; Rage, rage against the dying of the light
I don’t think I had ever read the full poem until a few weeks ago when I had to look it up online because the words kept circulating in my mind. And then I cried. Thomas wrote this for his dying father. I could feel every word of it.
In the 2 or 3 years I spent assembling my plans for sabbatical. I didn’t anticipate my world would implode right at the start. You rarely plan major life-altering events. I spent the first week of my sabbatical in a hospital, at my Mom’s side – alternately trying to distract her from her horrid condition, and trying to distract myself and my Dad from our worst fears. Trying to maintain and exude hope. And failing at some point each day to keep up the illusion for myself.
Sabbatical is that opportunity that comes along every 6 years for professors – an opportunity for renewal, for creativity, for networking, and in general, time to get stuff done that we can’t get done when we’re teaching three classes and jumping through hoops of academic bureaucracy.
Opportunities for travel, for meeting new people, developing new ideas to send you down a path that will keep you busy in all your spare minutes until the next sabbatical comes along. It’s a time for deep professional growth. I looked forward to having a full 15 months to catch up on things, and focus on re-orienting my career.
I didn’t know I would be re-orienting my outlook on life. I didn’t know I would be living in a universe without Mom. Losing a parent (or anyone you love) forces you to look into the face of Death. He has just walked right into the front door of your house, and as he walks out with one of the people you love and cherish most in this world, he looks back at you and say, ‘Yeah, that’s right. Someday it’ll be you.’
This is far from the first time Death has walked into my house – uninvited and unwelcomed. I first saw Death uninvited when I was lost my best friend, Connie, in a car accident. She was 26 years old. And again, when Michelle, my brother’s fiancee lost her battle with cancer at 44. And now Mom – Death disguised as cancer again – 71 years old. She died only 3 years after her own mother who was 92.
Those of us who lead busy lives always long for time to slow down. We want time to do all the little things that build up at work and home – and, oddly, use up any extra time we find doing all that little stuff. Grief has a way of stretching out time. Maybe it’s because all the little stuff that normally occupies your mind falls by the wayside. The little stuff still gets done – but you don’t really notice it any more. And time stretches out before you as you look for things to distract yourself from thinking too much. I’ve had more time than I can possibly imagine in the past year.
Time became especially slow when I arrived in Ecuador, and had to adjust to everything unfamiliar and new, in addition to trying to live in this new world without my Mom. I never had any inkling of canceling my plans or of returning home early. I felt (and still feel) drawn here for a number of reasons. I feel driven to learn and see and know as much as I can. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get homesick for friends, family, and a couple of fuzzy kitties.
I keep asking myself, what am I learning from all this? I’ve learned from this experience, and every other painful experience, that I can pretty much carry on as normal, and no one will be the wiser (or, rather, few people will be the wiser – I’m eternally grateful to those people who see through my happy demeanor). People who are grieving don’t walk around sad all the time. I do enjoy my time – I enjoy learning about new places, exploring the culture, the language, and the natural environment, and meeting new people. And I am SO grateful for the people I’ve met and friends I’ve made here. I’m productive academically – so much so that no one back at my university will fault me for not doing enough. But I certainly view my sabbatical, and my work in Ecuador, through a new lens – it’s something much different than it would have been if the world had not flipped upside down.
I notice a lot more than I would have without the lens of grief. I notice the old lady, who limps along with a twisted foot carrying a sack of vegetables on her back. I wonder about her life and how difficult it must be. I feel lucky I’m not her. But I could be her. And who’s to say she’s not lucky? She has outlived my Mom by probably 10 years already. I see people grieving at a small rural church and I find myself walking in their shoes. Pain and loss are universal and unavoidable if you live long enough.
I find myself getting angry more easily. I grow irritated with academic culture that places such a high value on ‘being busy’ – a culture where, above all else, busy-ness is a status symbol. Our time on this earth is very finite. I don’t want to be known for being busy. I want to focus my energy on the people and things that are meaningful to me – This does include my work in science and teaching. It includes time with friends and loved ones, and time alone with freedom to contemplate. I feel a greater urge to fight for these things that I value.
I also get angry and overwhelmed with the world. My work puts me in a position of learning, constantly, about the frightening state we find ourselves in as a global community, and how greed, ignorance (willful or not), and pride make it difficult for anyone to act as a team in this impending global environmental disaster. Seeing what I see here in Ecuador, where most people are just trying to survive any way they can, as they are in many countries of the world, I feel overwhelmed. Do you really think these people are going to make sacrifices to stem the tide of climate change? Many don’t even know how to use the internet for anything other than Facebook. I get angry that we live in a world where there are such inequities. Where the people who have the power to make changes are willfully ignorant. It’s frustrating and overwhelming.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
The challenge then, is how to maintain resilience in the face of despair and hopelessness. How can you learn the things you need to learn in this life and help others lead a better life through your voice or your actions? How can you leave your small piece of the world in better shape than when you arrived? How do you keep fighting for the things that are important to you? Where do you fight and where do you yield? Where do you have a voice in this world, and how can you use it?
My mom raged against the dying light. She fought with every breath. In her last act of life, she set an example I hope to follow until my own last days on Earth. She wanted to be here, in this world, and I think she knew it was hopeless. But she looked Death in the eye and said ‘Fuck you.’ And if you knew my Mom, you know she wasn’t one to swear – but she was definitely one to fight.
Do not go gentle into that good night
Age is something that creeps ever-so-slowly into a body, it slows us down bit by bit, but if you’re open to it, there are gifts with age. Clarity of mind. Courage to speak with confidence. The gift of not caring what others may think. Freedom from self-doubt. And the biggie: gratitude – for the memories of those who are gone, and for those who still walk this Earth with us. How do you put these gifts to good use before the sun goes down?
I’ve had plenty of opportunity in the longest year of my life to think about how short life is. How finite it is. Maybe this is the best way to honor those who are pulled from this life to soon – to be fully and continually aware of just how short our time is on this planet, and to be grateful for what we have. When we’re gone, none of the things we’ve collected in this life will matter (and will likely just be a burden to those left behind), but hopefully we will go on as my Mom does, through the lives we’ve touched, the battles we’ve fought, and the love we’ve shared.
(PS – Dad: Sorry for making you cry – hope you had Kleenex handy. Love you.)