by Natasha Horsley~
Today was a snow day. I took my daughter sledding with her best friend. We go to the hill in the nearby cemetery with everyone else in town. A decade ago I remember taking my sons there too, before they got old enough to go on their own. Before that I remember moving to America at 14 and seeing my first real snow and having my own first snow days. England was pretty pathetic in the snow day department, at least when I was a child.
But today I see the whole scene from a completely different perspective, atop a cemetery, for a start. It reminds me of Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town”, when the heroine Emily dies in childbirth she is buried in the cemetery above the town and from that vantage point she talks about life with the other ghosts. She begs the other ghosts for a chance to revisit her younger self and they begrudgingly allow it. She learns too late something Wilder wants us all to learn now: to fully “realize” each cup of coffee, each freshly laundered shirt, each waking and going to sleep, as we are experiencing them.
I am wondering what the ghosts are saying today as we both watch children all bundled up, flying down the hill, turning it into a mud slope, completely unaware that their forbears are literally all around them, blissfully unaware of all the transience they will experience in their own lives.
When we first moved to America, I thought of “Our Town”, not only as a timeless classic but also as quintessentially American. I had lived on a number of continents by age 14, and the idea of spending your whole life in one small town seemed really exotic! I wanted so badly for things to stay the same, for once. This play seemed to say, “They will and they won’t, but a small town’s as good a place as any to find that out.”
And that’s been true. What hasn’t felt so true is the timelessness of that play. For years and years now, I haven’t heard about anyone reading it for school or performing it anywhere. Back then I thought my parents marriage would last too, that my first marriage would be my only marriage, and that my parents would still be alive, since neither of them would actually be seventy yet. I didn’t have any clue that I’d already be a Stage III survivor of Melanoma either.
So, like Emily, I would go back and tell that younger version of myself a thing or two, if I could. First, I’d remind her to use sunscreen. Then, I would tell her that I will be here waiting for her when she’s done sledding, and wrap her in a cozy blanket, and make her some hot chocolate, and that I will always be here for her. At 49, my sister is the one who I have known and loved the longest, and she lives hundreds of miles away. I hold her dearly and all my other loved ones too, especially my husband and children, but at my core, I know that I am the one who has been and, will be, my most steadfast companion. I would tell that younger version of myself that the more she learns to hold herself dear, the easier all life’s transitions will be.
For me, Thornton Wilder is right when he writes, “People are meant to travel through life two by two. T’aint natural to be lonesome.”. And I am eternally grateful for my husband. But whether it’s through death or divorce, it’s really just you standing on that snowy cemetery hill, in whatever small town you’re in, dead (like Emily) or alive (like me), surveying the scene both current and past.
Divorce is terrifically hard. I wouldn’t recommend it really, but of-course there are exceptions to every rule. And as Bette Davis says, aging (and dying) aren’t for sissies either. But with all the choices we do get in life, there are some things we just don’t get to choose. And that’s a good thing, because sometimes the hardest things we go through end up being by far the best things. One of the other good things about transience is that even the hard things pass sooner or later.
Somebody described something I wrote as mournful recently, and as much as I see that in myself, I am also keenly aware that the flip side of that coin is my belly laugh (for which I also have a pretty bad reputation) and, of course there have always been, so far, new opportunities to go sledding.
In my case, at least, the hardest things I have gone through have made it easier for me to “realize” life as I am living it now, except for the times I start playing Words with Friends, of-course, or obsessing or worrying or… However, more often than not, being keenly aware of my own mortality helps me stay in the moment. To do this I don’t think you have to be a poet or a saint, as Wilder suggests. You just have to know you’re going to die one day.
As terrifically hard as that awareness is, it is the new loves, and old loves, and deep loves, that really are timeless, which make all of these moments, the hardest ones, the most joyous ones, the daily grind ones, all worth “fully realizing”. Still, I can’t help thinking that I’d love to have the chance to see that play again.