The cellphone rang this morning in my blacked-out Albuquerque motel room. I fumbled for it in the dark, half-knowing why someone was calling at that hour, half-hoping I was wrong. A few days ago, a dear aunt, her body freighted with an insurmountable cancer, had left the hospital to spend her last days in hospice care. She was the wife of my father's brother, and she'd fought this scourge for the last few years madly, desperately, but it outlasted her. She was too young for all this, in her 60s, not much older than my mother. Now her pain is finished, and there's some solace in that.
Everyone should have an aunt like Billie. She was tall, pretty, full of life and warm. To me, she was like a mother without all those motherly complications, although I don't doubt for a minute that she'd have scolded me brusquely if I'd needed it. Except for a few years a long, long time ago, I always lived far away, so seeing her was always part of a grander adventure to her native Los Angeles, a magical and illusive city where my father's family was rooted. For me, it was Oz, and Billie was Glinda.
Ironically, I flew to Albuquerque this weekend to celebrate a friend's 90th birthday. Wanita remains a sharp, inquisitive and educated woman. She's a retired military veteran who survived a couple wars, a couple husbands and her own daughter's murder by a man who periodically comes up for parole. She has lived alone and independently -- in the fiercest sense of the word -- for 20 years. She loves the birds in the parking-space-sized backyard of her three-room apartment and reads voraciously about other people's lives. And she is matter-of-fact about her own death, an eventuality for which she has meticulously planned.
So life and death haunted me this morning over free waffles and orange juice in the motel lobby. If you knew you had exactly 45 years left on this planet, would it make a difference? How long might you wait before you got serious about living? When has a good life been lived long enough? Would you worry about dying so much that you forgot to live?
I've been lucky in so many ways. Knowing and loving Billie and Wanita are just two. They both lived like London's meteor, but on distinctly different arcs. I've come to believe that a good life is as much about memory as time. Even if its life is relatively short, who knows what the meteor remembers?
Pain is the price we pay for memory. It’s some kind of sin to forget what hurts, as much as it is to forget what makes us smile. Suffering has its meaning, and memory has its graces.