Someone recently told me that life was like a roll of toilet paper--it goes so much faster at the end. While I may have twenty to thirty years left, barring a quicker surprise, those numbers are starting to feel definite.
This feeling of mortality started, ironically, at the Edvard Munch show that I saw in Chicago in February. I say ironically because Munch had become obsessed with mortality, and he felt at age sixty that he was going to die really soon, so he didn't pay much attention to painting or anything else anymore. It took him twenty years to die, much of the time filled with dread and anxiety and in exile at his house in Ekely.
I remembered this from my one and only art history class, which I took in Denmark during my junior year abroad. Then, age eighty seemed like forever, and then, at twenty-one, I had too much fun studying and traveling Europe to ponder "the end" or to even wonder what worried Munch.
Now I'm thinking what did Munch do alone in a house for twenty years? He didn't have Tivo or television, Twitter or Facebook. It took a lot more energy and focus in those days to waste your time. Of course, he was a painter, so he could watch paint dry. Dread is dread, though, whether you have a dry paintbrush or an uncharged Blackberry.
At the end of the Art Institute of Chicago's Munch exhibit, there was a timeline of Munch's life, and it included photos from around 1870 to near when he died in 1944. Because Munch was born in the previous century and gone when I studied him, I thought of him as ancient history. I hadn't thought there might be photos of him. To see images of his life from young to old made me realize how we are never really static. We're always changing. And a lifespan goes so fast.
These days, when I read the newspaper, I see lifespans. A recent article about Neil Young showed Young this year versus when he was in his twenties singing about life on Sugar Mountain. The contrast is remarkable.
Today's newspaper showed David Carradine young and old. His show Kung Fu, was on when I was a kid, and now he's dead, found at the end of a rope in his Thailand hotel room's closet. I never used to read obituaries, and now I read them all the time. I'm curious how a person's life is summarized.
Mortality, too, has been brought home over the last two years in seeing my mother go from someone so vital, driven, and sure to someone frail and exhausted, little concerned by the things that used to consume her: politics, the stock market, literature, and her sons. Hey, if Santa Claus can live so long, making toys, why can't we all?
Memory, too, been reinforced seeing my stepfather gnarled and thin, hearing aides in both ears, hands shaking as he tries to open his mailbox in the tower of old people he's in, a group home for the elderly. This man used to be muscular and work shirtless, walking behind a lawn tractor called a Gravely.
As I'm finishing my novel, I'm thinking, "Can't I do this faster? If I take two years on this, that's less time for one later." Then again, The Brightest Moon of the Century took a total of ten years, so this one is a rocket in comparison. Why am I putting numbers on things? Do I have two novels left? Ten? It's all finite.
In my children's literature class recently, I had my students write about a time in their childhood that was vivid--where something happened that changed them. I've never had anyone ever write about mortality before, but one young man wrote about when he was seven years old and taking a shower, and it suddenly struck him he'd die someday. It was such a shock to him, he started crying hard while the water drove into him. He started howling and he ran right out of the bathroom, naked, into the living room where his parents were concerned that he'd hurt himself. He told them of his realization, and they told him he was right. He'd die. Nothing to comfort him.
When I read that, I was reminded that I, too, had such a thought about the same age. I can tell you where I was: in my mother's un-airconditioned car on a summer day in Minnetonka Mills, Minnesota. I was alone while she ran into a building to drop something off. I don't remember it being stifling, but perhaps it was. It occurred to me not so much that I'd get old, but that I'd die, my parents would die, everyone I knew would die.
I didn't cry, but when my mother returned, I told her sadly about all this. She told me not to worry, that we all come back. We're reborn.
"Really?" I said.
"Really," she said.
I smiled. How cool was that that we'd get to come back? Of course, I didn't think it through then. Do we come back to the same house and same family? Do we come back to a world where software manuals are still poorly written and we feel like Rip Van Winkle? Do we return as people or dogs or tractors named Gravely?
Still, her notion was a comfort. We come back.
My mother has no sense of comfort now. I wish I could give her some.
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