Yesterday, I heard an interview on NPR with Joan Didion. She read an excerpt of her recent book, Blue Nights,which chronicles her grief following the death of her only daughter. In this except she discussed how her boxes and drawers of mementos which fill her New York apartment serve not to bring her back to the moments in time they represent, but to remind her how she didn’t fully appreciate them when they occured.
This is the dense part of the human condition, the obtuse flavor of reality: we can’t appreciate what we love the most until we lose it.
Maybe this is why I like the pictures of my mom and I from my infancy so much. In photos from later years, its harder to overlook the forced teenaged smile, or the vacant eyes of someone who would rather be doing something else.
One of the gifts of cancer is there is often warning before the end. But even though I anticipated my mother’s death for a year before it happened, I couldn’t fully get it. There was part of my heart that simply didn’t understand, or wouldn’t accept, that she could be not-here. I spent the better part of the hour after she died lying next to her in bewilderment. Yes, she had been in hospice for a month. Yes, I’m a nurse. But it seemed… impossible.
No, I didn’t appreciate her fully when she was alive. And how could I? We don’t appreciate air until we drown.
And now she is gone. With my whole heart, I appreciate her, and other parts of my life too that I would otherwise have taken for granted.