My father keeps telling me how many years he has left to live, recalibrating his estimate each year, based on his general sense of wellbeing. He will occasionally announce like he did this year, “You know, I am 78. I have maybe 3 more good years left so I can travel. After that, maybe 5 years taking it easy. Then gone. Okay. Change channel to ESPN, please.” So far, he has outlived his original estimate years ago.
This does not alarm me–as my parents have been announcing their impending deaths my entire life, from the beginning of my remembering days. I once repeated Margaret Cho’s lines back with Korean accent-inflection and all to my mom, who began to giggle hysterically, seeing herself in Cho’s recollection and imitation of her Korean mother’s voicemails:
“BOOP! I have to tell you something. I just wanna tell yoooooou that Grandma and Grandpa, they are gonna die. *pause* I don’t know WHEN they’re gonna die, but sometime! So Mommy just tell you now, so when they die you’re not surprised. *pause* But don’t tell them! That’s not nice, that’s not nice! BOOP!”
This is hilarious, because it is pretty much verbatim what my mother has told me. Except that in our household’s case, she kept telling me that she and Daddy were gonna die. Someday. And we should not be surprised. And that we needed to be independent. Because we could not depend on them to live forever. Because they could die tomorrow. (And let’s not even get started on my parental grandmother, my childhood live-in caregiver, reciting her funeral preferences to me as I fell asleep each night).
Of course, as “normal” as this all was to me, I started going to church on my own as an eight year old girl, surprising my atheist parents. It was a relief to discover the concept of Heaven and announce to my parents, “I am not afraid of Death!” Humans are incredible at coping/adapting.
Ah, the things that war and early childhood suffering engenders! My war-surviving parents were blindsided by Death left and right, and they never wanted me to be blindsided. Perfect preparation for raising a writer, really.
This sense of impending death is useful in that it has provided me with an incredible sense of urgency
and impatience my entire life. When in your head is the clear expectation that you or your loved ones could die any day and that the world could explode in guns and warfare, things get super crystal clear. And also, you make sure your pantry is never empty….just…in….case.
When I got sick…this became less of a theory and more a reality. I really did have a stroke and it came out of nowhere, a freak event of a clot hurtling into the core of my brain, through a freak, previously undetected birth defect hole in my heart (which the doctor perfunctorily closed). I lost the ability to retrieve memories, and I had a fifteen minute short term memory (which eventually extended to a 60 minute short term memory, and then the ability to read a short story and remember it, after 6 months, etc., etc). I couldn’t write fiction, let alone read fiction. I couldn’t return to writing my novel for two years.
The only thing I thought about, throughout my recovery, was regaining my ability to write. And in fact, the optimist in me was determined to come back as a BETTER writer, as inspired by Lance Armstrong (blood doping or not) as I was. I wrote in my diary everyday–sometimes it was gibberish. But mostly, it was a supplement to my damaged short term memory. Unlike Memento, I did not tattoo all that I had to remember (seriously inefficient!)–I wrote it down in my Moleskine journal, with timestamps, so that when someone would allude to something, I would rifle through the pages of my Moleskine until I found what had happened/been said previously.
But mostly, it was a record of my recovery, and it was my way of writing every single day. Oftentimes, I had to nap for hours after writing a single journal entry, because that very act would exhaust me/my brain. But I still did it. I wrote in an anonymous online journal about my recovery, where I gained some incredible friends who are still very good and close friends to this day. I just made sure to write. I was convinced that by doing so, I could reinforce writing capabilities and form new pathways in my brain that would make me a stronger writer. I wrote and I wrote. And I slept and slept afterward. And then I’d write. And sleep. Until I found myself itching to write fiction again, first in short spurts of descriptive paragraphs, and then finally, a short story.
Throughout this time, I was told I was back to normal more times than I could tolerate. But if I could not return to my novel writing, there was no way I was fully recovered. And I wondered about a life without writing fiction. I despaired. Deep inside, I knew I still had trouble remembering things, that part of my
ability to retort wit/spontaneity was missing. I felt like a dull blade.
…and then, after two years of struggle, I woke up and blinked and everything was bright and sunny and calm and I realized I could remember things that I couldn’t previously remember. That I could remember people’s names again. That I could read something, and remember exact quotes and remember the exact page on which these quotes resided. That there was still a dark hole in my memory around the dates of my stroke that I had trouble remembering, but I could memorize license plates again while bored behind the wheel of my car.
And I could write my novel again. I nearly wept. But I didn’t, because my thalamus by that point had finally healed, and my coping ability had returned.
The road back to my novel was graciously short, and yet simultaneously, way too long for my own comfort.
In the end, my novel benefited from that break. I returned with a greater urgency to finish and complete this novel. With a greater urgency about life and love itself. With a great understanding of this exigency. It’s been years since my stroke, and I still think about that time whenever I need to summon that need to finish/urge myself to move forward.
 The thing is though: you can never prepare for Death. It sucks when it happens.
 I am no longer church-going or Christian. And I, like many Jews, am not really sure Heaven exists.
 On 9/11, right after the planes flew in to the WTC, my dad called me up and the first words out of his mouth were, “We are going to war! Prepare yourself! Go to store and buy water!”
 The only thing I was able to read and retain in those early months of stroke recovery was People magazine.
 Until I had fully healed, I wept with great ease. I just couldn’t control my emotions. Like a small child, I cried when I missed someone, and I cried when someone hurt my feelings, helpless without response.
 I try to engender the same sense of urgency in my students. I tell them we don’t have a lot of time. That we are in this basic skills class to remedy the last 10 years of ill preparation. That we have one semester, just a few months, to make up for all that lost time. That we are in it together.
Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.