Today the weather is zero degrees outside, and two inches of new bright snow are keeping most folks at home. The day is sunny and still. I carefully drove the five blocks to my beauty shop, inside the Jewish old folks’ home. Here I sit under the hairdryer, watching the slow parade of nodding heads in wheel chairs as they’re pushed back to their rooms after a very quiet bingo game. To use my time, I’m trying to think of how to describe in words what I see here. In front of me, a large transparent garbage bag hanging from a square black metal frame with a cheap grey plastic cover standing open. It’s 1/3 full of used white towels that smell of permanent solution and hair coloring chemicals. What else is in front of me? All is rather unglamorous today.
But suddenly, I’m remembering another day in my life; maybe the sunlight and quietness were the same there as today. I’m standing in the hallway of the Louvre in Paris, a long, carpeted, quiet hall before me in subdued browns. Along the left are statues, usually white, standing on pedestals or in glass boxes. Sunlight flows down through high indirect windows. Back farther along the walls are famous Renaissance paintings, dark colors, some gruesome religious subjects, not appealing to me. I meander down a ways and then turn into the room where Leonardo’s painting of the Mona Lisa is kept, a little back in a large very protected showcase. My eyebrows rise; I’m stunned! She doesn’t look anything like the paper posters and refrigerator magnets where I’ve seen her everywhere! The real Mona Lisa is rich in the warm colors of real paint, burning browns and oranges, even the dark colors are pulsing with life in them. She is powerfully calm and present, like a Dalai Lama, on the earth and off the earth. It feels to me as if she’s really here! Behind her I see a brown dirt road and flowing water; I’d never noticed her background before. On that day, I sit down on a grey cement bench for 45 minutes and take in her live presence.
But back again here in the sunny quiet nursing home, captured under the noisy hair dryer, I find myself remembering a different day in my life. Maybe once more it’s the similar sunlight and quietness. I’m standing in a surprisingly small garage; all is brick and cement. I notice there’s no place at all to sit. To my right are two saw horses supporting a long cardboard box, in which lies the six foot body of my son. On my left stretches a long black rusty narrow furnace, a little higher than myself. I’d been told I could be present at his cremation, but I didn’t expect it to be quite so – “mundane.” I open the bent cardboard over his face, the beautiful face I know, but to my touch it’s cold and hard. He’s not here in his body. I place a red carnation on his chest – his favorite flower. Then against the control of Fate, I cut a clump of his sandy brown hair from the left side of his head, to keep his real body with me as long as nature will allow. I cry, and I tell his spirit how sorry I am for all the things I did wrong as a mother, and that I tried my best to save his life but I couldn’t do it. Suddenly the tall skinny man says “Cremation takes a lotta hours and we need to get goin’. ‘Fraid your 15 minutes is already up.” I kiss my son on the forehead, and then, I don’t remember how, they pick up this long heavy box and shove it into the furnace. I hear the door clank shut. Then the tall man asks if I want to push the button to turn the furnace on; in a fatalistic daze, I do it. I see the red light go on and we have to leave.
But now, still sitting again under the quietly noisy hairdryer, I try to remember some other calmer day in my life. Suddenly, I’m standing alone on a very high hill, looking out over the sunny city of Honolulu; I see the dark blue waters of Pearl Harbor and the lovely gentle turquoise waters of Waikiki Beach, and over there the large cliff called Diamond Head. The white buildings of the city are everywhere dotted with green palm trees. I lower my eyes to the ground in front of me. On the other side of the low grey metal fence, I see the evidence of many tourist buses. The ground slants downward as open dirt for about 12 feet before the soft green of the cactus fields begins. All this open area is littered with cans and bottles, the remains of sandwiches, small grey and black plastic containers that once held camera film, and plastic bags waving and nodding like flags in the wind. I pause, now shocked and distraught. Then I climb over the fence, grab a stray bag, and begin filling it with junk. For two hours I fill the bag, climb back up the hill to the empty garbage cans, pour out the trash, and then carefully slide down the slanted ground to fill it again. Finally I’m satisfied and even go a little way into the cactuses, but I give up on that and return to sit on the fence, once again looking out over the vast sunny multicolored city below. Now, I feel, I have bonded with the land here. Now we are good friends, and I have reminded her of how beautiful and precious is the island of Hawaii.
As my awareness returns here to the beauty shop in the nursing home on an ordinary non-adventurous day, I add up the total for “days of my life.” I’ve already been given approximately 26,700 days! How many more might I have before I, too, leave my body behind? Not another 26,000, not in this body, but if I take care, hopefully quite a few more days, each unique though they may seem the same, and though they flow by so quickly I don’t always notice the unexpected. I hear that the way to live to be 100 is to live to be 99, and then, be very careful. Part of my slower future is enjoying memories of many interesting days of living.