Coming home to nine days of mail, still grungy from planes and airports, I stood over my suitcase and opened only the few envelopes addressed with human hands.
Enclosed in one was a gift from a woman I met about six weeks ago: a picture of me taken on December 7th at a memorial service. She had snapped photos at the event to compile with other mementos for the deceased woman’s family on the other side of the country. I didn’t know the woman who died but attended solely to help with the small practicalities.
Erring on the side of protecting her privacy, I hesitate to write too much about the dead woman. Even describing her with that adjective feels (incorrectly) like a blunt violation of, if not confidentiality, then respect. Dead: it ought not seem like such a coarse word.
When I learned about her life from the friends who hosted the service, I couldn’t help but see more than several similarities in our circumstances. We came to Los Angeles at about the same age. Lived for long periods alone, in small apartments, with cats. Unmarried. Childless. Loved walking. Used our vacations to travel east to see those we left behind. Attended the same church, held similar occupations.
I heard these details repeated, first in a small meeting, later at the service. Each time, I thought, the same could be said of me — but there’s more, there’s so much more. I wondered about the missing details of this woman’s story. What wasn’t being said? What wasn’t known? What was her deepest joyful moment? What was her best day like? Her worst? People with her towards the end might have seen her worst day. Maybe.
I don’t know what disturbed me more, the idea of being memorialized incompletely or the possibility of having too few decades left, partnerless routine decades. Of course, it wasn’t about me, it was about honoring the dead. Woman. A specific dead woman who I probably would have been fond of had we met sooner.
When I opened the mail two nights ago and saw the picture of myself, I was surprised and delighted. Surprised and delighted at the kindness of the acquaintance who took the trouble to print it and send it. And even more surprised and delighted by how pretty I look in it. I’m flirting with narcissism by even thinking that, let alone saying it publicly. But these are my “Hello, crow’s feet” years. Any flattering picture is a welcomed stroke of luck not to be taken for granted.
After that initial reaction, I thought, I remember that day. December 7, 2010.
It’s no wonder I photographed well that afternoon. I was surrounded by loving people from the time I woke up until the time I went to sleep. Even as I thought about death and feared the silence of a finished life, even as I spoke of departures and goodbyes, even as I sat with disappointment and battled insecurity, specific people loved me that day. I was treated with kindness. I was touched in good ways.
And that’s not all. I got to love back. I got to exercise kindness and reciprocate touches. I got to work and sing and play. I was healthy.
Returning from the east coast this week left me unsatisfied and tired, sad, like 2010’s closure is going on for too long, like nothing will be the same ever again, yet too much remains unchanged. I felt unable to imagine what restoration will look like.
But when I see my gift picture, all of that changes. There I am, for one fraction of a second from one angle–nearly as old as I am as I type this–looking young, happy, existing with mortality and loss and fear and pleasure. It’s as if I’m saying to myself, my future self, “This is your life, Ruth. Take it. Take all of it. It’s going to be okay. It’s okay now.”