Living the Lives We're Given

It is no coincidence that the Christmas classics we revisit every year feature protagonists who are facing the very real possibility of their own deaths.

By Michelle Martin
Published January 22, 2014

Another Christmas has come and gone, the 28th of our married life. We were speaking, Stephen and I, a while back, by the firelight over a glass of wine (a circumstance which inevitably leads to these kinds of conversations), about how quickly time has passed.

He had a dream not long ago, in which our two oldest (aged 25 and 24) were little again, and it was so vivid that he awoke ­­­expecting them to come padding into the bedroom, in their flannel pajamas, to wake us up.

It was a few minutes, as he roused himself, before he remembered that they don't live here anymore. How did that happen so quickly?

The days fly by with increasing speed: we get up in the morning, and spend the day trying to do our best, to make the day a good one, despite various obstacles that arise, and despite our own faults.

As I now tick off the "age 45 - 65" box on any survey I may choose to complete that asks for my demographic, it becomes more and more urgent to me to do better, to make the days better. I hope I do. I'm afraid that often I don't.

There's always tomorrow, right?

Flannery O'Connor, in her uncomfortably funny and terrifying short story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," writes of an elderly woman whose moment of grace comes under the gun of the escaped convict who has just dispatched her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren in the woods beyond.

This newly found goodness is enough to spark the almost imperceptible beginning of a change of heart in her murderer, and O' Connor gives what is in my opinion the most profound line to the killer, as he and his buddies leave the scene of their crime:

"She was a talker, wasn't she?" Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.

"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

"Some fun!" Bobby Lee said.

"Shut up, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life."

I would probably find previously undiscovered springs of virtue in my soul if I knew I was going to die today, or at least remembered that death is always a possibility. It's not that I have any excuse.

Being Catholic, I grew up hearing the priest say, "Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return," every Ash Wednesday. Stephen likes to recount how his late brother, in childhood, used to hear this as, "Rubberman, you are dust," which makes me think of a cosmic battle for good between some comic book character and Super Jesus (Victor Garber circa Godspell): "Rubberman, you are DUST!" ("Hey, it's Daddy Warbucks in an afro fighting a trashcan monster," says the 11 year-old looking over my shoulder.)

It is no coincidence that the Christmas classics we revisit every year feature protagonists who are facing the very real possibility of their own deaths.

There is George Bailey staring off a bridge into the freezing water below who learns that everyone he knows would mourn him, and here is Ebenezer Scrooge encountering his own gravestone, learning he would not be mourned by anyone at all.

We've put those DVDs away again, Christmas being finished:

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.  But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.

— W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio

As I contemplate the possibility that I might die today, what comes to mind immediately is that the kitchen table must indeed be scrubbed, the bathrooms need to be cleaned, the family photos are unsorted, and there are files at work that need tidying.

Is that what I would really turn my attention to, if the possible became reality?

Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine recounted how she'd been in a bank during an armed robbery: down on the floor, hands on her head. She said that her entire life did indeed pass before her eyes, all of it - but it felt like it was happening in slow motion, even though the threat she was under took only minutes to resolve.

I gather she was thinking about her relationships, not her housework.

Yet completing mundane tasks is part of what it means to love someone, to care for your family and friends, to value your colleagues, your neighbours. Balancing this against other needs is a daily challenge that involves fighting personal weakness, not to mention the tiredness that comes with age or illness.

So I have learned to forgive my parents for what I felt, in young adulthood, to be highly culpable errors on their part, and now know through hard experience to be part of the human condition.

I hope in time our own children will forgive me my mistakes, once they've lived a little more of life, and battled jobs, bills, landlords, mortgages, banks, cars breaking down, doctor's appointments, shift work, orthodontics, children's homework, leaky pipes, plugged toilets, overtime, fender benders, gastrointestinal illness, snowstorms, ER visits, sometimes all in the space of one week - can I get a witness, fellow parents?

God willing they won't have to battle anything more serious, but who knows? Most of us do, at one time or another.

And then how to balance the time spent on our personal obligations with those we have to the community at large? "Mankind was my business!" wailed the ghost of Marley to Scrooge.

Yesterday, this city said goodbye to Councillor Bernie Morelli, who by all accounts knew how to enjoy life, and left behind friends and family who knew they were loved, colleagues and who knew they were respected, and constituents who knew he would do his best for them.

How do we accomplish this among the push and pull of daily events? Last week Finnish singer Essi Wuorela performed with Les Choristes at Von Kuster Hall, UWO, and reminded us all, "Sing today, because when you are dead it is too late." This must be the secret: to find the joy in what we have been given to do:

Forever I will move like the world that turns beneath me
And when I lose my direction I'll look up to the sky
And when the black cloak drags upon the ground
I'll be ready to surrender, and remember
Well we're all in this together
If I live the life I'm given, I won't be scared to die

— Avett Brothers, The Once and Future Carpenter

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.


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By jeffreygeoffrey (registered) | Posted January 22, 2014 at 11:31:41

that was great

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted January 23, 2014 at 11:20:52

Thanks Michelle. I can't believe your kids are that age either! Whenever I get retrospective (which I do often, Emily is turning 21 and in 3rd year at Uni. Jack is 15 with a beard!)I always think about what practical changes I need to make to stop fretting and start having fun. Allowing myself to be optimistic helps as does opening myself up to spontaneity (the most fun times are unplanned - right?). I also try to say 'yes' more often and try new things. In the end the older I get the less I care about falling flat on my face :)

Say Hi to Steve and thanks for a great article.

PS This is Ben, your old neighbour ;)

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted January 23, 2014 at 19:41:12 in reply to Comment 97101

Hey Ben everyone says hi back! Jack with a beard… the mind boggles.

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By Trish (anonymous) | Posted January 23, 2014 at 17:13:29

Thank you my sister! One of your best articles. Complaining that I have to peel potatoes and have a cold just seemed like a little more of a stupid indulgence this aft.

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