Carpe Diem: seize the day.
We lost Jimmy this week. We lost Dan, and Anne, and Richie this week. Jimmy’s motto was carpe diem, advice that seemed even more essential yet harder to follow when I was forced to seize each day from death’s grip. All around cancer, and death, and dying: this week, I would carpe diem not by doing, but by feeling. By not turning my back on that most inevitable and fearsome part of life. By venturing with friends and family into the wilderness of the unknown, and staying with them in their suffering.
Three days before he died, Dad and I visited Jimmy in hospice. His wife, my mom’s best friend from childhood, was reminiscing about her cross country travels with Jimmy, and she couldn’t remember the name of a mountain they had climbed by car. She described it, narrowed its location down to one of three states, and even remembered that it started with a p. We brainstormed and Googled, trying in vain to help her retrieve the memory.
For the first time in weeks, Jimmy had been alert enough to speak that evening. He called out the names of loved ones. Those big teasing blue eyes were still sealed shut; he had found a new way to tease us. Oh how we wanted to see those dancing pupils in pools clear as day. But he told us that he loved us, and told his wife and daughter that he didn’t have much time left. He knew what was going on. Maybe he would be the one to remember the name of the mountain.
Joanie went to his side and gently took his bruised hand. “Jimmy, do you remember the name of that mountain we’re talking about? Out West, we went to the top in the car? I can’t remember what it was called. You have the T-shirt at home. Do you know the name of the mountain?”
He had an answer. It was difficult to understand him as his voice was hoarse and weak and he could no longer form shapes with his mouth. She asked him again. “What did you say, Jimmy?”
With great effort and complete confidence he replied, “Yankee Stadium.”
We all laughed, in recognition. Instantly, we knew what was happening. We all do, deep within.
Jimmy confirmed for me what I’d always suspected about my mom’s last days. She too had suffered immeasurably and had to lie, locked in her world, for months on end. Mom wasn’t able to talk but used her deep liquid brown eyes to tell us where she was. I imagined that when she closed them, she went swimming. Underwater, she somersaulted back through her life, slowly turning through the memories, arms stretched before her and pulling sometimes my brother and me and oftentimes Dad, or maybe her cousins or Joanie to join her. She could live her life in there, the essence of it and not the grind, the fruit of it without the rind. Tumbling through space and time she could jump from the stoops of Brooklyn onto the cobblestones of Nantucket, or step off the old apartment elevator and onto the sands of my wedding beach. Now she could sail wherever her stream-of-consciousness tide took her in the flowy flowery pink dress she wore on the day we finally tied the knot…that is, until it transformed into her Catholic school uniform or her own wedding dress with the darts and the long satin sleeves. All significant, and yet all the same. All life, all love, all the things that rise in the mind to represent the life and the love because otherwise we cannot conceive of its enormity.
Jimmy was able to voice what I knew, what we all know in dreams. That Nantucket was Brooklyn, that Coney Island was King Kullen, that Crest Road was Conselyea Street. What is that mountain we climbed? Yankee Stadium. The Pike’s Peak of the Bronx, where Jimmy grew up. A rising landmark, not always visible but ever present, defining the landscape and drawing him in. Like water to the riverbed, radio broadcasts rolled down to the streets bringing life to the people, to a Bronx kid in awe of the stadium that had marked the land of his heart. When he went, what a peak! This mountain would rise on the map of his life for all time, to be revisited for real or in dreams or in near-death or death.
Tomorrow will be 23 months since the volcanic mountain on our map, Superstorm Sandy. Like the House that Ruth Built, our house will still be our house when it is reincarnated. Though new, it will still carry in its bones all the events and people that made it a home, all the cheers and catcalls of our lives inside. Even unfinished, our old/new home has already become an even more significant landmark in our lives, one we will have climbed for over two years to reach—and one we will, fittingly, have to climb fifteen steps to enter every day we come home. A perfect reminder that this is just one of the mountains on a map already marked by our mothers’ deaths as well as our marriage, Bear Mountain, Machu Picchu, and a pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick.
Because I live with chronic pain it is a triumph each time I am able to reach a peak. Sandy is just one of the mountains defined on my map not by distance or altitude but by the depth and significance and hardship of the journey—and by the human chain that helped me up. It is all big, all of our landscapes with all of our mountains, and looking back it will only matter that we lived it, and we lived it with those we love.
We are just weeks from home now. Jimmy, thank you for reminding me to live through every experience, to carpe diem even (especially) in times of fear and loss. Every day I seize the day I am a step closer, not only to home, but to trust and wholeness and to peace.
I wish eternal peace to the dear ones who have climbed that last mountain. May their families find solace in the streams they send down, to fill our dry beds with water and dreams and life.
RIP Matthew, Stephen, Dan, Anne, Richie, and Jimmy.