As if in answer to my writing yesterday, a woman of 66 wrote in yesterday’s NYT that she saw her life as one that was fulfilled. Do I feel that way?
Fulfilled to me sounds completed and I don’t believe mine is. There’s always more that I want to do. But when I look back at what I have done, it’s not so trifling a life. Two children who are good adults, three books, time spent in four other countries, friends whom I value, and a prevailing love of my work—that’s a good span. If I died this minute, I’d be happy with that.
And still I always want more, the book that will gain a wide readership and recognition, the spot near the ocean that I’ve always longed for, seeing and tasting and hearing experiences I’ve never heard before. I want to learn what I can of other languages and to feel sunlight and snowfall and the mist that hits when I’m on a ferry. I’d love to go to Asia on a container vessel. I want to visit Serbia and Mexico and ride through Mongolia on horseback.
And then comes the impossible desire—I want to talk to my mother.
Ever since she died, I have known that my life is unbuffered. She stood between me and my mortality. Now that she’s gone, I’m the oldest in my family. I’m next.
Our relationship was flawed, critical and often withholding. We were more sisters than we were mother and daughter. Yet she was there, at the other end of a phone line, willing to hear a story or to give feedback, or to chat. When we were together in a room, we often found that we were engrossed in each other’s company. “From the way you were talking, I thought you were with a friend, not your mother,” a woman who saw us in a restaurant once told me.
We always wanted the other’s attention. And in my case at least, I almost always received it.
At first after her death, my mother’s favorite color stabbed me every time I saw clothing that was orange, and passing a shop that sold tea was always a jolt. Now, facing cataract surgery, I want her reassurance and her scoffs at my fear. I want her still to be alive for the most selfish of reasons—as long as she is on the earth, it’s not my turn yet.
And that, more than anything is probably the function of a mother as she and her children grow older. Her presence is a reassurance that they are still protected, in an intangible and completely unrealistic way, but that which is intangible and unreal is magic. When our mothers die, we lose that magic.
Fulfilled still sounds like an epitaph to me; I’m not yet ready for it. But when I apply that word to my mother, I think she would have said yes to it. Even in her dying, she shaped that state to her own code of behavior. Surrounded by books, she chose when to stop eating, drinking, and breathing. Certainly that’s a fulfilled end of life.
When I went to high school briefly in Puerto Rico, an assignment was to memorize one hundred lines of Julius Caesar. Of all those words, only tag ends stay with me, and most resonant is “Seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.” And when it does, I hope I can be like my mother, gracious, loving, and accepting.
Until then, I want my life, as much of it as I can hold, never completely fulfilled, always hoping for a little bit more.