My daughter called last week, weeping into the phone about Robin Williams death. “It is as if a part of my childhood is gone,” she sniffled, “he was so great. I just loved him.”
I was happy that my daughter at 28 could feel things so deeply. On hearing the news, I was shocked and saddened, but it didn’t come at me with the force it did her. We become drier, I suppose, with the shocks of living, if we survive to middle age. When I heard that Mr. Williams had Parkinson’s as well as the black dog depression, I shook my head ruefully. It just keeps coming, it never ends—“it” being life, La Vida, as my housekeeper says. Life is full of troubles, if you haven’t heard.
A friend of mine says, “Until three years ago, I didn’t know what people were talking about when they said life is hard. Life isn’t hard, I’d thought, it’s a blast. Now I know what they are talking about. Boy, do I.” My friend is fifty; three years ago her husband left her for another woman. Another friend’s dying mother has come to live with her. My friend is up at 2, 4 and 6 am, taking care of her mother, lifting her heavy, numb legs off the bed, supporting her the few steps to the potty. Her sleep is fragmented. She feels trapped, stressed, alone.
My childhood friend’s mother went through a protracted and painful death this spring. The day she died, my friend wasn’t with her, because she was seeing a surgeon about her recently discovered colon cancer. The memorial service had to be put off because my friend had to recover from her own surgery. She hasn’t had a chance to mourn her mother, or herself because her father has Alzheimer’s and she is busy making arrangements for him while getting her parents’ home of forty years ready to sell.
We have gone through our own harrowing. One of our beloved children has fallen down the rabbit hole of drugs and alcohol. It feels as if we’ve been in an earthquake: the ground is Jell-O, and none of the walls seem solid. How is this our life? My husband and I are stunned, numbed, shaken. Everything has shifted, become unrecognizable.
And yet. And yet, even acknowledging La Vida as I do, even acknowledging my age, illness and limitations, I still dream of dancing on tabletops, of drinking wine on the coast of Croatia as the sun sets on the Adriatic. As Jason Shinder writes in his poem, “Middle Age”:
Many of my friends are alone
and know too much to be happy
though they still want to dive
to the bottom of the green ocean
and bring back a gold coin
in their hand ….
Foolish, maybe. But how do we survive La Vida without the consolation, the idea of the gold coin? Without the belief there is a boon to be had, do we just put our heads down and plod through?
Robert Pinsky suggests, in his poem, “Samurai Song,” a boon, but one of subtraction, not addition.
When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.
When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited….
When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.
Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.
I find this poem strangely affirming, especially the line “When I had no thought I waited”. The speaker is confident, centered, and in command of himself. He is not thrown by external circumstances. He does not define himself by his poverty, but by his abundance. He is able to do this because “detachment is my strategy.” He, it seems to me, has won this poise not through a life of ease, but a life of adversity. No one and nothing can take this boon of “self” from him. We may know too much to be happy, but we still can be joyful.