My friend Kim is a wonderful writer and actress and mom. She and I have collaborated on a few projects and it's always been a great learning experience for me as she's quite brilliant. Anyhoo, she wrote the essay below and I have her permission to share it here. You may notice a few differences between her account of boogie boarding etc and mine but that's one of the things I love about stories - once you tell them they don't belong to you anymore - they become part of something we all share and remember the way it serves us. I love Kim's take on all of this craziness - she is fearless and never backs away from the real shit. Anyway - here's her piece:
Life is Short by Kim Porter
If ever I’m in a cemetery I seek out the children’s graves. They’re easy to spot from a distance as their silhouettes are often softened with heaps of sun-bleached stuffed animals, whirling pin-wheels or holiday decorations. I like to stand in front of the headstone and try to absorb the details. “Candace Bell March 15, 1987- July 14, 1992. In our hearts forever.” Counting on my fingers I work out her age. She was only 5. Someone has left a tiny porcelain bell here. I ring it. I bring her first to life in my mind’s eye and then to death. I calculate how long she’s been gone. 16 years. That’s sad. Stale grief is lonelier; fewer companions remain to carry the torch. Somewhere out there, Candace Bell’s mother and father alone, still long for the weight of that 5 year old in their arms. Or perhaps their marriage dissolved under the burden, and now they must walk their lives with a lump in the throat that can never be spit-out nor swallowed. I cry freely now, and move on to the next head stone, and, after that one, another. If permitted I will gorge myself on other people’s grief until my face is fiery and swollen and I have to breathe through my mouth. I’ll weep until I’m punchy or until my companion’s tolerance for this spectacle wears out.
Surprisingly, some people don’t find vicarious grief as rewarding as I do. My husband for one.
My husband thinks I’m out of my mind. He can’t appreciate the curative effect I experience from dwelling on the macabre.
“What if one of our children died?” I often ask him. “How would you feel?”
“I don’t know. How would I feel? Awful, I guess.”
“But, would you be devastated?” I probe. “I’d be devastated.”
“I don’t want to think about this.” He sneers, irritated.
But, I do. I got hooked on the wake-up call of tragedy when my estranged father died suddenly when I was 29. I instantly knew so many things I’d never thought I needed to know. For instance: anger isn’t the opposite of love, life is too short to tolerate the tantrums of self-absorbed co-workers no matter how statuesque they are, and you can never get back the years squandered waiting for life to commence. I woke up. I was still alive. Sure, the grief was crushing, but the gift was brilliant. I was grateful, actively grateful, finally grateful to be alive.
Life is short.
But, so, apparently is my attention span. Because, before I was aware, I was standing in the kitchen bitching that nobody’d started the coffee yet, and who left these legos for me to tread upon and, why can’t I just get a break from the children’s persistent chatter? Here I was again, taking my life for granted.
So, I’ve learned to look at the post-cards of missing children delivered in the mail with the Safeway circular and imagine if it was one of mine. I read news articles about the tragic and untimely deaths of innocent people. Oprah is a good source for pathos, as are AP photos, tornados, school shootings, car jackings, drunk drivers, and attacks by roaming bands of pit-bulls.
Maintaining a state of gratitude for more than a few moments at a time is hard work. My husband doesn’t understand that I don’t enjoy, not entirely anyway, having to conjure virtual grief by imagining the unimaginable, but somebody’s got to keep us loving life.
A few weeks ago my friend took her teenaged son to Mexico to go boogie boarding one last time before it was too late. The way she described it, her board and her gloved left hand were out-fitted in Velcro. She hobbled out into the surf, her boy bolstering her against the battering waves. For more than an hour they inched into the ocean. When she was finally deep enough to paddle she discovered she could no longer paddle. And so, amid tears and laughter, she had to acknowledge it was already too late to boogie board one last time. So, they went to a cock-fight instead.
My friend was diagnosed with ALS shortly after Halloween when she went to the doctor with a stiff thumb. By St. Patrick’s Day she’d said goodbye to walking without braces, driving, the use of her left hand, swimming, zipping her favorite pants, closet doors, and hitting the high notes. In the near future, as futures go, she will say goodbye to sitting unassisted, chewing and swallowing, communicating with her voice and ultimately, breathing. And then, my friend will say goodbye to life.
My friend is no longer burdened by the petty struggle to appreciate life.
I wish she were.