August 26, 2016
I am writing this somewhere over Colorado. The Flight Tracker screen shows that we will arrive at John Wayne Airport in 2 hr. 06 min. I can’t wait to see my sister who will pick me and my wife and my best friend from college up for a long weekend in Newport Beach – her home since January.
My calendar tells me that in 72 hours I will arrive at 60. I thought I was okay about it. Okay as in not freaked out or depressed but in the days leading up to the Big Six-Oh, I have found myself tearing up easily. Not necessarily sad, just emotionally tender.
I’ve been thinking about my parents a lot, so maybe that has something do with it. My father died at 79 and my mother died at 70. I’m really not being morbid, but I’ve always had it in my head that I, too, would die at 70. It’s probably the writer in me – what a gut wrenching story that would make, right? I think 70 used to seem so very far away but now that it’s on my radar, I am thinking that I really don’t want to write that story.
The absence of my parents has been a strong presence in my life for the past 14 years. It’s a bit like the undertow of the ocean. Sometimes I’m barely aware of it, other times I’m almost pulled under by it.
I suppose it’s rather cliché to ponder one’s own mortality at 60, but that is where I find myself in Seat 12E today. Lately, I’ve been looking at my life like one of those stupid slideshows that Facebook creates (why?) from time to time. I see quick images from my past – my high school graduation, a family vacation in Sandbridge, my first (really dumpy) apartment in Annandale, VA. I see joyous things – the births of my niece and nephew – and hard things – the breakup of my longtime relationship. And I see my failures much more clearly than my triumphs.
I also hear random memories – the sound of people playing touch football outside my apartment window on a brilliant fall Sunday afternoon while I float in and out of a nap resting by my partner. I can hear the distant humming of a small plane in flight. I am probably 23 or so. I can smell that day – burning leaves in the distance. I can taste that day – a honey crisp apple.
I thought about that day the first time I read The Hours by Michael Cunningham. There is a passage in that brilliant novel that always stands me still. Clarissa, one of the central characters, is preparing for a dinner party in honor of her dearest friend and former lover Richard, who is dying from AIDS. She recalls a day almost 30 year ago when she and Richard were together.
I remember one morning getting up at dawn. There was such a sense of possibility. You know that feeling. And I…I remember thinking to myself: So this is the beginning of happiness, this is where it starts. And of course there will always be more… never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment, right then.”
That afternoon was my moment.
I’ve been blessed with an abundance of moments since then but that was the crystalline pure singular moment before I knew of death and grief and my own failings.
I just finished watching Everything is Copy in flight, a documentary about the writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, written and directed by her son, Jacob Bernstein. It reveals a total woman – good, bad and wickedly funny. The title comes from something Ephron’s mother, a Hollywood screenwriter, always said to her kids growing up – “Everything is copy,” – meaning that everything that happens to you is fair game to write about.
Ironically, the one thing that Ephron, who died in 2012, never wrote about was her illness – a serious blood disease that was diagnosed in 2006 and later developed into leukemia. Many of her closest friends were shocked to learn that she had been sick for so long. Ephron had spent her career writing about her life – her parents, her divorces and even her breasts.
In the documentary, her son reflects on why his mother didn’t share something so essential.
I think at the end of my mom’s life, she believed that not everything is copy – that the things you want to keep are not copy. That the people you love are not copy. That what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away – the things that have been taken from you. She saw everything as copy as a means of controlling the story. Once she became ill, the way to control the story was to make it not exist.
I am fascinated that one of the most prolific and successful memoirists of our time was able to conceal such an intimate part of her life until her death. Ephron was oh so very clever, though, and in some ways wrote her own eulogy at the end of her final novel I Remember Nothing, published two years before her death, which included a list of What I Won’t Miss and What I Will Miss.
You can read both lists here but it is the list of things she will miss that made me tear up on my flight. It’s just a short inventory but it is so lyrically beautiful in its simplicity. It includes, of course, her husband and her sons but also butter and Paris. It includes taking a bath and one for the table. And pie.
Her list made me think of my own list. I’m not copying but I’m down with Paris and pie, too. And scrawling my list on my ever handy writing pad was a timely exercise in gratitude.
What I Will Miss
Looking at the wine list
Pouring my wife another glass of wine
Newsprint on my fingers from the Sunday NY Times
Independent films in tiny theaters
The sound of a foghorn
The sound of good friends laughing at the dinner table
The sound of crunching leaves on a fall walk
Watching my wife cut up vegetables
Kathy Ausen’s chocolate chip cookies
Speaking bad Italian in Italy
Postscript: I made it to Newport Beach and I made it to 60. So far, so good. I’ve blown out a lot of candles on a lot of birthday desserts lately and my wish has been consistent. In fact, my wish has become my mantra for this next chapter of my life. It’s short and it’s sweet and I want to keep it in front of me every day along the way. So I gave myself a little birthday present – a tattoo – as a reminder.
Nora Ephron’s mother was right – everything is copy. And I don’t want to miss a moment.