The Last Update

My graduate advisor and mentor and dear friend called to give me updates. Lisa had presented a paper on something, I forget what. Barbara Ponty, the old department chair had died. I didn’t recognize the name, but didn’t say anything. It must have been before my time. We chit-chatted a bit and he gave me some other news. And then, as he was wrapping up, he said, “Well, I just wanted to give you an update. And I guess someday, I’ll call and it will,” his voice broke and it sounded like he was starting to cry, “be my last update.”

I resolved that the first thing in the morning, I would pull out my Chromebook, sit on the couch, and write him a note to tell him how much he meant to me, print it out and send it to him in a card before it was too late.

I woke in the morning, disoriented. It was too late. Bob died in 2010. The conversation took place in a dream just last night, December 4, 2022. That explains the oddly specific resolution to pull out my Chromebook and sit on the couch, which is not my standard operating procedure for letter writing.

I’ve had similar dreams with my mother or grandmother. It’s always disorienting to wake and realize that these people who I cared for and who cared for me are gone. Whatever conversations we have had, whatever things we said and didn’t say, have to be enough. It was not the first and will not be the last time I have had conversations with Bob in my dreams.

As I lay in bed in the morning, I thought of my sister, who currently has a nasty case of cancer [update: and who died on November 14, 2023]. People sometimes ask whether my family is close and I don’t know how to answer. For some people, close means they talk on the phone every day. In my family, we do not talk that often, but we do like each other and we do enjoy and cherish the times we spend together.

My siblings are my oldest friends, there from the beginning, the people with whom I can always relax. My sister and I are the talkers in the family, so though we might only talk every few months, the conversations often exceed three hours. Even in her fatigued state due to chemotherapy, our most recent conversation lasted two hours.

I wondered how I will dream those conversations.

I have been working on a fiction story. It takes place in multiple timelines across great spans of time. One of the characters in the oldest of the timelines has traveled to far-off lands, only to end up back in the small village she grew up in. The other day I was thinking of a scene, not yet written, where the young boy in that timeline asks her why she returned. Her answer is that despite all that the rich merchants and powerful rulers have, there is something she had in the village that none of those rich and powerful people in the broad world had and she came back to find it. “What is that?” the boy asks. “Enough,” she answers.

This has been much on my mind lately. I am trying, amidst a culture of more, to be a person of enough.

When Mary got her diagnosis, it was unclear whether she would be able to attend her daughter Marianna’s wedding in October, so Marianna pulled out all the stops and changed the date. A marriage blessing and the main reception would still happen in October, but there would be a smaller wedding in September, before the chemo started.

This gave us only six days to buy tickets and arrange to cross the country to be there. I debated what to do. On the one hand, it would be great to be at the wedding with the entire family. On the other, I knew how weddings go. You have very little time to spend with anyone in particular. I thought for a bit that maybe it would make more sense to skip the wedding and plan a separate trip just to see my sister and be able to spend more time together in calmer circumstances, and then just go to the main celebration in October.

I was trying to have more. I thought at first that it made a difference whether I had 30 minutes with her or ten hours or two days during my visit. I realized that all our life, the nearly 60 years we have shared a planet, has to be enough. It cannot be fixed by a sprint at the end. That is the path of more.

If a lifetime of love and friendship is not enough, then nothing is enough. A few extra hours, a few extra days cannot transform enough into more. We have either shared our life and our love, or we have not. The special thing was not more time, but time together, all of us, my father and all his children and their spouses and most of their kids in one place at one time, possibly for the last time, for however much time that was.

Marie Howe writes in “What the Living Do,” one of my favorite poems: “We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss – we want more and more and then more of it.” And that’s the way of it. We want more and more and then more of it. But despite how much we fight it and how hard we try to avoid believing it, deep down we know that more and more never fills you up.

Strangley, more is never enough. Only enough is enough.

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