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From the author of The Gift of an Ordinary Day, this intimate memoir of loss, self-discovery, and growth will resonate deeply with any woman who has ever mourned the passage of time, questioned her own purpose, or wondered, "Do I have what it takes to ...
From the author of The Gift of an Ordinary Day, this intimate memoir of loss, self-discovery, and growth will resonate deeply with any woman who has ever mourned the passage of time, questioned her own purpose, or wondered, "Do I have what it takes to create something new in my life?"
With the candor and warmth that have endeared her to readers, Kenison reflects on the inevitable changes wrought by time: the death of a dear friend, children leaving home, recognition of her own physical vulnerability, and surprising shifts in her marriage. She finds solace in the notion that midlife is also a time of unprecedented opportunity for growth as old roles and responsibilities fall away, and unanticipated possibilities appear on the horizon.
More a spiritual journey than a physical one, Kenison's beautifully crafted exploration begins and ends with a home, a life, a marriage. But this metamorphosis proves as demanding as any trek or pilgrimage to distant lands-it will guide and inspire every woman who finds herself asking "What now?"
"Warm and wise. . . . Soul searching reflections by a woman coming to terms with the three major challenges of midlife: change, loss, and death." --Kirkus Reviews
"This luminous memoir is a gift to any reader searching for meaning, clarity, and perhaps a bit of hard-won joy. Katrina Kenison is the best kind of guide through our life's passages: a thoughtful, fearless friend who reaches out a hand and says, I've been here too." --Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion
"Katrina's beautiful observations on love, loss, growth and gratitude will brighten readers' worlds considerably. You won't find a better guide or friend to accompany you through the sorrows, joys, and mysteries we are all meant to share." -- Priscilla Warner, author of Learning to Breathe
"Deeply personal and gently instructive, this poignant memoir of loss and growth affirms that, in the ways that truly matter, we are all intimately connected, our humble human stories more alike than different." --Stephen Cope, author of The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling
"An extended meditation on a certain passage in life - one composed of loss and gain, deprivation and sustenance. She learns the way to relinquish old pleasures and to seek out new pathways. This is a guide that we all can use - warm, intelligent and compassionate." --Roxana Robinson, author of Cost
"No matter where you are on the journey, Kenison's own pilgrimage points the way home. She give us permission to stop trying to improve ourselves and invites us to relax into the wonder of who we already are." --Regina Brett, author of Be the Miracle
"Soul bared and hand extended, Kenison is right beside us as we, too, face life's next inexorable threshold: the elusive pursuit of self-acceptance." --Margaret Roach, author of The Backyard Parables
"After the kids are gone, Kenison faces the question that haunts every mother's empty house and every woman's passage beyond midlife. What now? Deeply wise and courageous, every page shines with beauty and pulses with truth. " --Karen Maezen Miller, author of Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life
"With clarity, honesty, and spirit, Kenison allows readers into the intimate work of self-discovery and renewal." --The Concord Monitor
"Moving . . . inspires readers to find their way in a world that can change in the blink of an eye." -Chicago Tribune
"Facing an empty nest, a friend's death, and changes at work, Kenison resists her usual antidote to unwanted change: keeping busy. Instead, she stops and takes stock of her life. It was so beautifully written, I wore out a yellow marker highlighting my favorite lines." --People magazine
Mostly, we play Banana.
It is the last week of July, a stretch of hot, sunny, high-summer weather, and my son and I have six schools to visit in six days, strung from the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont to the southwestern corner of Massachusetts.
We’ve been arguing for months. Finally, here in the confines of the car, a temporary, wary truce has sprung up. I wonder if he is as tired of the battle as I am, as anxious about taking the next step, as sad about our recent past and as tentatively hopeful about the future.
Driving south on Interstate 91, the highway an empty black ribbon unspooling beneath an infinitely blue sky, we are—dare I say it—happy together, freed by travel and possibility, glad to watch the scenery rolling by. And, as we’ve done all week, we keep our eyes peeled for yellow cars. The first one to call out “banana” scores a point; the first to get five wins the game. Between yellow car sightings, I tread lightly, avoiding the hot subjects—video games, failing grades, lies—that have led to this unexpected road trip, this rather desperate, last-minute decision to look into private school for our younger son.
We listen to Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature on Jack’s iPod and keep score ruthlessly, searching parking lots, driveways, the rearview mirrors. I’m grateful for this small, safe haven of a game and glad to hear him singing along to the music. I love his new, deep, rangy voice, his presence here beside me, the fact that after a year of not knowing what to do next, we are finally doing something. That we’ve set aside our hurts and misunderstandings, and lost ourselves instead in song lyrics and a car game from childhood, seems to me a good sign. I so want to believe we’re doing what’s best for our son at this vulnerable moment in his young life, even if it means letting go of my own cherished vision of the way our family life ought to be. Right now, the lightness between us, the singing, and this marathon game of Banana give me hope that we are.
Still, the irony of our search for a school that will admit a student a month before fall classes start is not lost on me. I’ve just finished writing a book about the poignance of children growing up and leaving home, about the importance of creating and protecting family time while we still can, the need to nurture our relationships with one another and to make space in our days for laughter and intimacy and ease.
I spent a year trying to prepare myself for our older son’s departure for college, blinking back tears through every “last” of his senior year, anticipating how strange it would be to set just three places at the table instead of four, and wondering all the while how I could possibly bear the end of our day-in, day-out togetherness as a family. My consolation was the fact that I’d still get to be a full-time mom for three more years. I would still be needed to pack lunches, wash uniforms, and have late-night heart to hearts. Henry had had an exclusive on his parents as an infant; Jack would get to enjoy his only-child status on the back end, for his last three years of high school.
“I’m a little jealous, cuz you took a total babe to prom,” Jack had written in a funny graduation sonnet for his big brother, “but, hey bro’, I’ll own the bathroom once you’re gone.” We would miss Henry terribly, but I knew what Jack meant—he was about to get a lot more space. And I was looking forward to plenty of one-on-one time with him, to family dinners, basketball games, having his friends hanging around the house, marking every milestone of his high school career by being there.
But the reality of our younger son’s sophomore year in the public high school a mile from our house never aligned with any of our expectations about how things were supposed to unfold.
While I was sitting upstairs at the desk in Henry’s bedroom, writing the final pages of a memoir about family togetherness, our bright, social, athletic fifteen-year-old checked out. He quit the cross country team, quit the youth group at church, quit doing homework, and descended instead to the basement and a stash of video games that became far more compelling to him than anything his real life seemed to offer. His grades fell from As and Bs to Ds and Fs. He said he didn’t care, stayed up till three, and rolled out of bed at noon. For the better part of a sleepless year, we looked like a family of raccoons, our eyes ringed with dark circles, our nerves frayed. Yet no matter how much my husband and I worried, argued, talked, cajoled, and insisted that Jack pull himself together and rejoin the world of school and sports and friends and family, he refused. We tried therapy and ADHD medication, handwritten letters and midnight confrontations, carrots and sticks, holding on tight and letting go completely. Nothing worked. He would barely get off the couch.
Sometimes, straining to see beyond his sullen expression, his defenses and excuses, his aimless fury, I would catch a glimpse of the son I knew—a jokey bit of wordplay in the midst of a conversation laced with sarcasm, a sweetness in his eyes as he cuddled with the dog, or a cry of despair from some still-tender place inside. I began to suspect that behind the insolent facade was a boy who was as miserable and confused as we were. Jack’s toughest battle, it seemed, was not really with us at all, but with himself. If we were going to get him back, we realized, we would first to have to let him go.
And so we pulled him out of school and sent him off into the woods, to a wilderness program in the mountains of Georgia, where he slept under a tarp for nine weeks, carried a fifty-pound pack on his back, learned to make fires with a rock and bow drill, cooked his own food, and rediscovered the joy of being alive. When it was over, he came home changed, tanned and strong, wiser, thoughtful, and full of good intentions. But his hold on those intentions was fragile at best, and it was clear there was no going back to the way things had been before. He’d lost most of a year of high school. His GPA had plummeted and his friends had moved on. None of us wanted to risk a return to the basement. So, although boarding school had never been in the plan or in the budget, we began looking for a place that felt like a fit, a school that would be willing to give him a second chance and that would challenge him as well, a new community where he might continue to thrive and grow.
By the time Jack and I make our way south to the Berkshires and our final school visit, we are both in good spirits. Hesitant at first, he’s gotten on board with the idea of a fresh start in a new place and is beginning to think of himself as a student again. He’s written an honest, thoughtful essay about his time in the woods, filled out half a dozen applications, and dared to imagine a better future for himself than the virtual existence he’d swapped for reality for far too long. He is serious and forthcoming in an interview, talking about the ups and downs of the last year with a forthrightness and vulnerability that surprises me and seems to impress the admissions director. Sitting down to lunch at a café near the school, Jack is as eager to share his impressions of the morning as I am to hear them. “I can picture myself there,” he says tentatively, trying the idea on for size.
As soon as we get home that afternoon, Jack asks for the car keys and heads over to a friend’s house, school catalogs in hand, to consider his options. He has until five p.m. to accept the only open spot at his first-choice school, the one he knows will be the toughest academically, the one with a strict dress code and Saturday morning classes, and the only school, it turns out, that is too far away for weekend visits home. We’ve told him this is his choice to make. Now I have to keep my word and let him do it his way—at the last minute and by his own gut instinct, not mine. At five minutes to five, he calls me: “I’m going,” he says. “Call them quick, before I change my mind.”
And so it is that four weeks later, we deliver our son to a boarding school three hours from where we live. Would he like some help making up his bed? I ask, as his dad lugs the last of his belongings up the stairs to his tiny shared dorm room on the third floor.
“No, no, I got it,” he insists, hanging his new sport coats on the rack, arranging his ties, laying claim to his new space. He is eager to get on with it, clearly ready for us to be gone. And that’s when it finally hits me: We are about to get in the car and drive north to an empty house. My life as a mother of children at home is over.
We do not make or create our souls, we just grow them up.
January. It is just before 5:30 a.m. when I slip out of bed, reach into my closet for a pair of socks and an old pink cardigan fleece, and tiptoe down the stairs. Yesterday’s snowstorm was followed by rain, then, overnight, plummeting temperatures and clearing skies. Fully alert yet not quite ready to begin the day in earnest, I hesitate to turn on lights, pausing in the shadowed kitchen to look out upon an icebound, silent world. The landscape is so familiar, yet different every time I look out the window, changing not only with the seasons but moment to moment, depending on the light, the hour, the mood of the sky. This morning, all is still inside and out. A fat, creamy moon, just shy of full, hangs low in the west, illuminating the shiny shell of snow on the field, the bowing, ice-encrusted pine trees, the shrouded, silent mountains that are the backdrop to my days here. It is a good place to wake up in, this solid, sheltering house on a wide open New Hampshire hilltop.
Yet there’s no need for me to be up at this predawn hour. There’s no place I have to be by nine, no work deadline hanging over me, no lunches to prepare, no child in the house who needs to be roused, hugged, fed, and hustled out the door. After years of alarms that always seemed to go off too soon, endless exhortations to “hurry up” and my sons’ predictable pleas for “just five more minutes,” my schedule is no longer dictated by career demands, school hours, or children’s needs.
I’ve poured a thousand bowls of cereal over the last twenty-odd years; these days, the only breakfast I’m expected to make is my own. I grew so accustomed to the daily stampede of feet up and down the stairs that I ceased to hear the noise; now, silence rings in my ears. I bestowed countless hasty good-bye kisses, my attention already elsewhere as I brushed lips to cheeks—only to wake up one morning and realize that all those little good-byes had led, inevitably, to big ones.
Day after day and year after year, I wrote the tardy note, packed the snack, unearthed the lost glove, hustled boys out the door, then got down to business: cleaning, shopping, cooking, writing, editing, exercising, e-mailing, driving. And, in the midst of all that doing, I found a sense of purpose. I thought I knew exactly who I was: a married woman, a mother of two, a writer and an editor, a homemaker.
Now I suspect I didn’t know who I was, so much as where I needed to be at any given moment and what I needed to be doing—raising a family, earning a living, being a good mom, a loving wife. I tried to pay attention, to be present and grateful as I juggled kids’ schedules and publishing schedules, housework and “paid” work, writing time and family time, time alone and time with friends.
And somehow—just like every other multitasking mother I know—I managed it all. Most of the time I truly loved doing it all, too, loved knowing I was an essential player in this ongoing family drama: creating a home, tending the hearth, nurturing my loved ones, raising two sons to adulthood.
If vocation can be defined, as theologian Frederick Buechner suggests, as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need,” then for two decades now I have been blessed to have had a calling. Meeting my children’s needs, I found my own deep gladness and sense of purpose. Motherhood enlarged my view of who I was and what I was capable of. Being with my children, watching them grow and change and meet the world, deepened my own relationship with the world. In the process, I grew, too, in ways I couldn’t have begun to imagine on the day when a flush of pink on a little white stick first told me I was pregnant.
That moment was a turning point, as it is for every mother. Suddenly we go from living for one, to a profound awareness that our existence will forevermore be inextricably bound to another. Now, more than twenty years later, I find myself poised at another crossroad, uncertain of my path, yet once again sensing that powerful inner shifts are already underway.
The little boys whose lives once seemed to consume mine are young men now, their bedrooms as silent and empty as shrines. The communal rhythms of eating and sleeping and being in our household were disrupted as my sons became adolescents and then vanished altogether when, one after the other, they left home. There are no more muddy footprints to mop up, no piano recitals or big games to attend, no book reports to proofread when I’d rather go to bed (although the occasional essay does show up on my laptop late at night).
My two sons come home often. Many of our family traditions remain intact. Yet our togetherness now is not what it once was. Enormous loads of laundry are washed, favorite meals prepared, the occasional game of Balderdash still played, hours of tennis and basketball watched on TV. But always I know: They arrive to leave again, each parting a fresh reminder of a time of life that’s ended. What I didn’t expect and could never have anticipated was how adrift I would feel without the constant demands of family life to anchor me in place or the small, daily tasks of motherhood to give direction and shape to my days.
I can sit at my desk writing from dawn till midnight, or not at all; who cares? And is it really worth my time and effort to cook dinner anymore—a whole meal prepared, served, and cleaned up after—for just two people? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure when to go to bed, or why I still leap up in the morning to put the coffee on at six.
I tried to sneak past my fiftieth birthday without a celebration, stunned to realize I now had fewer days left on earth than I’d lived already. And, having crested the arc of life and begun to make my way down the other side, I’m a little weak-kneed, unsure of my footing on this scrabbly descent. How am I supposed to feel about aging in a world where beauty is younger than forty years old, where wrinkles mean it’s time to consider “getting some work done,” and where I often feel invisible when I enter a crowded room? Going down turns out to be harder than climbing up; it seems there’s more to this second part of life’s journey than meets the eye—and without the familiar landmarks of day-in, day-out family duty to keep me on track, I’m not at all certain of the path.
The ache I feel deep in my breast this winter is not assuaged by any of the tasks that used to add up to a life. I manage to stay busy all day, then lie awake at night, worrying about things beyond my control. I remind myself to live in the moment, yet carry a deep sadness for moments already gone. I reach out to my teenage son and feel not the old, easy intimacy I long for, but an assertion of his new independence instead; our relationship, healing slowly, is still raw and tender to the touch, like second-degree burns on my heart. Henry, busy and thriving at college in Minnesota, takes pride in his self-sufficiency. He calls to say hello, to tell me his news, but rarely to seek my counsel. Perhaps that means I’ve done my job well—he knows who he is, how to take care of himself, how to create a life—but it also means that, after all these years of dedicated service, I’m essentially unemployed. I answer e-mails, pay the bills, read and write, take care of the house, spend time with my husband, bring lunch to a friend. The days are full enough. And yet, the question nibbles at my edges: What now?
At times, my nostalgia for our family life as it used to be—for our own imperfect, cherished, irretrievable past—is nearly overwhelming. The life my husband and sons and I had together, cast now in the golden light of memory, seems unbearably precious; what lies ahead, darker and lonelier and less enticing. As Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has observed, our egos “prefer just about anything to falling or changing or dying.” The second half of life seems to demand that we grow familiar with all three.
Yet, the phrase midlife crisis doesn’t exactly apply; crisis suggests a kind of wild recklessness, an urge to overthrow, break free, and create something brand-new out of the chaos. Having spent all these years painstakingly building a life—a life that became ever more engaging and complex as our sons became teenagers—I’m hesitant to dismantle what we all worked so hard to create. At the same time, I have to face the fact that it’s already come apart.
My husband and I move around the house these days like strangers, at loose ends, so unaccustomed to living alone as a couple after twenty years of family life that I sometimes wonder if there’s anything left for us to say to each other. Has it really been all about the kids? And now that it’s not, what will hold us together for the next twenty years?
Emotion wells up and catches me off guard at the oddest times of day, cresting and breaking like a wave. The sight of Jack’s old school bus laboring up the hill gives me a pang of missing him; he won’t be getting off by the mailbox as he used to do, checking to see if a new envelope from Netflix has arrived. Attending a concert at Henry’s old high school, I realize that this is the last year I’ll know a single student there, the last year that any other parent will know me. Driving home from the grocery store, my eyes spill brief, sudden tears at the sight of our vacant house. Turning on lamps in the living room as dusk falls, I find myself pausing, staring out the window, wondering if I will ever again experience the passionate aliveness I felt as the center of the universe for two little boys. Wiping the kitchen counter, putting the last dish away, I’m overcome with melancholy, wishing the phone would ring or, better, that the back door would fly open and the sound of teenage voices erase the quiet.
Instead, the emptiness surrounds me. I am a mother without a child. An aging woman whose arms still feel the weight of small bodies held close, whose hands recall the outlived tasks of motherhood: brushing tears from a cheek, bandaging a pinkie finger, buttering toast, testing a bath, smoothing a cowlick into place.
I wonder if there is some new calling or purpose awaiting me in the next phase of life that might begin to compare with the joys and challenges of balancing work and motherhood and family. I wonder if the best days are behind me, and whether I can find a new sense of meaning and identity in the years to come. And I wonder if other women find themselves as confused and unsettled by this stage of life as I do; whether they, too, are asking: Shall I hold tight to what I know and do what I’ve always done? Or do I have what it takes to create something new in my life, to discover what is important to me now, and to claim that, become that?
As the first pink streaks appear in the sky on this frozen winter morning, I take my ritual tour through the house, straightening up as I always have: ice cream bowl into the dishwasher, sofa pillows set to rights, the newspaper tidied into a pile, a book returned to the shelf. Then I turn up the heat, sit down in the silent kitchen, and allow my thoughts to drift.
So many of the things that have shaped my sense of self and filled my life over the last two decades have slipped away—my career as an editor and the steady income that went with it; the day-in-day-out responsibilities of parenthood; youthful dreams and ambitions; my bright eyes and smooth, taut skin; even the simple expectation that I would put two meals a day on the table and the family would show up to eat them.
It seems that, just as our children are coming of age as young adults, we women confront some coming-of-age rites and passages of our own. Whether we are eager and ready for change or have it thrust upon us, we find ourselves in new territory, a little lost and fumbling for direction as the years suddenly seem to pick up speed. Thirty, forty, fifty—how could three-quarters of my life be over? Where did it go? A few months ago, I sat at the bedside of one of my dearest friends, holding her hand as she drew her last breath. Not a day goes by without the pang of that grief and an awareness of all she’s missing. Losing her, I feel even less certain of my own footing, as if ground that only recently felt firm and solid has turned into shifting sand.
Meanwhile, in my own close circle of women friends in their forties and fifties, I see a breathtaking span of challenges and possibilities—from divorce, illness, and financial crises to new careers, revived passions, and all sorts of creative endeavors; from unexpected romantic relationships to adult children struggling and in need of support; from a new ability to say no to unwanted demands to renewed commitments to community service, friendship, and extended family. My friends are climbing mountains, passing the bar exam, learning to live with chronic Lyme disease, recovering from a husband’s early death, taking up the cello, selling the family home, volunteering at a community garden, taking painting lessons, caring for elderly parents. What amazes me most is not the range of these experiences, but the fact that none of our lives today resemble the lives we took for granted just a few short years ago. What we all have in common is a sense of having reached a turning point. And, as we come face-to-face with the realities of our changing bodies, our changing roles, our changing lives, we are aware as never before that our time here is finite. Picking up the pieces of lives that have been transformed by change, rearranging them into new patterns, we wonder how to make good use of these remaining years, how to live now in order to avoid regret later. And we are compelled to meet our true selves at last.
I’m startled these days to catch sight of myself. Can that really be my own face reflected back at me in a shop window? “Who’s that?” is always my first response to this aged person, so different from the youthful, unwrinkled woman I still feel myself inside to be. And how can I possibly reconcile this outer, older, matronly version of me with the private, inner one who, confronted now with the specter of age, has a sudden, almost unseemly desire to live more passionately, to feel more intensely, to delve down beneath the surface of my life in search of something deeper?
It’s as if, rounding the corner into midlife, I could see the view up ahead abruptly transforming before my eyes. There, off on the horizon, I catch glimpses of the finish line, the inexorable end of life, and suddenly everything is up for reexamination. All my choices seem to matter more. Knowing my steps are numbered after all, I yearn to find my own path, and then to walk forward more thoughtfully, more deliberately, than before.
As a friend from Virginia wrote me a few days ago, “I can only make so many scrapbooks and arrange so many social events and research so many colleges. I’m afraid of those do-gooder organizations where I end up in committee meetings taking an hour to decide on what color tablecloths we should use. Been there! Done that!”
I recognized the sense of urgency beneath the humor of my friend’s late-night e-mail. I feel it myself. I suspect we all do. No longer indispensable, no longer assured of our old carefully crafted identities, no longer beautiful in the way we were at thirty or forty, we are hungry and searching nonetheless. Hungry, perhaps, without even knowing what it is we hunger for.
In his classic account of the hero’s journey, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell suggests that the universal tales, or monomyths, as he calls them, that have survived for thousands of years share a common structure. The hero is given notice that, like it or not, his life is about to change. He can refuse the adventure and cling to the past (in which case there is no hero, nor indeed a story to tell), or he can commit to the quest—at which time a guide, or perhaps a series of magical helpers, will appear. The hero summons his courage and prepares to cross a threshold. A painful separation ensues, as the hero leaves behind what he knows and ventures into an unknown realm, beginning the process of transformation. He confronts a series of challenges, encounters both love and hardship, and undergoes a kind of death of the old self, so a new self can come into being. “It is by going down into the abyss,” Campbell writes, “that we recover the treasures of life. When you stumble, there lies your treasure.”
Campbell describes a number of possible stages to the journey, including acceptance of the call, rites of initiation, confusion and chaos, achievement of knowledge and understanding, a period of rest and fulfillment, and an eventual return to the starting place, where the wisdom acquired on the quest is finally integrated and shared with others.
It is a familiar, universal plot line, providing the structure for countless tales, from the stories of Odysseus and Prometheus to the life trajectories of Buddha, Moses, and Christ; even the Star Wars trilogy took its shape from this timeless blueprint. But as Campbell himself recognized, the great mythologies and much of the world’s storytelling focuses on the masculine journey—male rites of passage, male spiritual development, male archetypes, and male outcomes.
And yet there’s no getting around the fact that midlife is a time when women, too, are called to transformation, as our old roles and responsibilities and assumptions shift or fall away altogether. If the first step of the hero’s journey is to accept that, like it or not, the winds of change are already wafting through the house, then I suspect that many of us women find ourselves pausing at the threshold, unsure whether we’re coming or going, poised between the old, familiar territory of hearth and home, family and children, and the new, uncharted landscape stretching out before us. Having found my own sense of self and satisfaction right here in the consuming roles of wife and mother for so long, I can feel myself hesitating at the door, trembling at the unknown, a little afraid to tie up my shoes, shoulder my bag, and set forth.
And yet, I also sense that this journey is one I have to take, even if I’m not sure yet where I’m headed. As Campbell says, “We must let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to accept the one that’s waiting for us.”
And so, although I have no plane ticket in my pocket nor any itinerary pointing the way to some exotic destination, I do feel as if I’m being called to a journey of sorts, a journey that may be more spiritual in nature than physical, but one that feels as momentous and uncertain as a pilgrimage to an unknown land. Having longed for change in the past, only to resist it when it arrived, I know the feelings of restlessness and fear that are part of any major life transition. But I’m not willing to accept the idea that the hero’s journey is specifically a male story, nor that growth and change are the provenance of youth, nor that the only journeys that really count require passports and an extra pair of shoes. In fact, I suspect the opposite is true—that the most significant journeys are often inner ones, those that lead not to distant realms but to the discovery of something important and deep within ourselves.
As I contemplate the silent snowfields beyond my window on this dark winter morning, I sense a stirring of intention, movement, and metamorphosis. Deep beneath the frozen earth, new life waits, patiently biding time until the blessing of sun and the benediction of rain call it forth. Sitting here alone in my slowly brightening kitchen, I wonder if my early-morning restlessness could be preparing me for an awakening of my own. And if perhaps what has felt so much like an ending might also be a beginning.
This existence of ours is
as transient as autumn clouds.
To watch the birth and death of beings is
like looking at the movements of a dance.
A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky,
Rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.
She’s been gone three months, but I’m still not used to the world without Marie in it. Missing her, I sift through memories, as if by recalling the details that made her who she was, I might somehow keep my friend close. I can almost summon her: the warmth of her voice, her quick smile and lively brown eyes, her slim, competent hands and her peony-pink pedicured toes, the way she danced with joyous abandon to “Love Shack” on New Year’s Eve, drove fearlessly through Boston traffic, stretched her fingers to the sky in triangle pose.
But no matter how hard I try to conjure the essence of Marie, I can’t fill in all the empty spaces. The stark, absolute absence of her—of her life, her face, her hello on the other end of the phone, her name popping up in my e-mail box, her presence here on earth—has begun to grow, as Sylvia Plath put it, “beside me like a tree.” I live in the dark shadow of that loss, the shape and color of my own life changed by the too-early end of hers. And I know now, in a way I never quite did before, that time is contingent and that anything can happen.
A little over a year before Marie died, we went hiking in the White Mountains. The trip was her idea; she wanted a change of scenery and, as she said, to spend a couple of days “where the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning isn’t the fact that I have cancer.” That wasn’t easy anywhere, but a remote hut on the top of a mountain with four women friends for company seemed like a good place to try.
“Bruce is pissed,” she told us as she adjusted her backpack in the parking lot, dismissing her husband’s objection to her adventure as a bit of unnecessary fuss. “But there was no way I wasn’t going to do this. He’s worried about what could happen if I have some reaction to this new drug. Well, if I do, I’ll turn around.” Then she said, with typical matter-of-factness, as if willing it to be so, “I’ll be fine.” And she was.
Although we were prepared to take it slow on the way up, there was no need. Marie never did want anyone waiting around or changing a plan on her account. She’d been in the hospital that morning, had had her blood drawn for tests and received the first round of yet another experimental treatment. No longer holding out an expectation for a cure, she wasn’t about to abandon all hope either, and so she’d become a willing pioneer in uncharted medical territory, game to sign on for any clinical trial willing to admit an advanced stage-four ovarian cancer patient. If some untested drug held the possibility of stalling the disease for a while longer and buying her so much as another season of life—another child’s birthday, or a walk on the beach, or a trip to the farmers’ market—she was there.
On this day, she’d put in her time at the doctor’s office; now, she didn’t want to be treated like an invalid, or to think about her husband’s fears, or to consider the fact that this might be the last hike she ever took. She just wanted to climb a mountain and enjoy the scenery and laugh with her friends.
It was easy for me to forget Marie was as sick as she was—in part because, when she wasn’t recovering from surgery or the latest round of chemo, she still seemed so much herself. So healthy. And so much more engaged with the myriad details of living than cowed by the prospect of dying. As Marie liked to point out, she never even got a cold; apart from the fact that she had stage-four cancer, she was in “damn good shape.” She also had three children who still needed her and a lifetime’s worth of plans. So much living yet to do. If anyone could beat the odds, if anyone could lean into her faith and call down a miracle, she could—and, well, the alternative was still too hard to picture. And indeed, with every setback, Marie had managed to brush away the tears, gather her resources, and assume her whatever-it-takes attitude—102 pounds of tenacity. Three years into the disease she wasn’t expected to survive for six months, Marie had become an expert in pulling through and moving on.
This summer, she had her own hair back along with her energy, her legs were tanned and strong, her sense of humor was as sharp as ever. The years of chemo treatments and surgeries and relapses had taken their toll, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her as she cheerfully clambered up through the rocks, pausing every now and then to eat a handful of trail mix and exclaim over the view. If we’d asked a stranger on the trail to guess which one of our group was sick, Marie—fit and vibrant and so obviously happy to be where she was—might well have been the last choice.
In the hut that night, the two of us had top bunks, just across from each other in the crowded dorm room. And this is what I remember: seeing her sit up in the dissolving darkness of five a.m. to swallow her new pills. She can run, I thought to myself, but she can’t hide. No matter how positive and full of life she is, there aren’t any mornings now, not anywhere, when cancer isn’t her first thought. I gave a little wave, blew her a silent kiss across the aisle, and we snuggled back down into our sleeping bags.
In the morning, it was pouring rain, windy, and so foggy we could barely see the trail at our own feet, let alone make out the path ahead. At some point during our slippery, sloppy, painstakingly slow descent, I snapped a photo of Marie and our friend Carol, wind-whipped and drenched, rain hoods plastered to their heads, two frozen specters emerging from a swirl of mist. We all loved that picture, not only as a record of the hellish weather but even more for what it so clearly says: that our ideas of the “perfect” day, the ideal hike, the peak experience, mean next to nothing. It’s the experience of being alive, even if you’re soaked to the skin and shivering on the side of a mountain, that means everything.
Marie and I were pregnant when we met for the first time, our bellies nearly touching as we joyously discovered that we were backyard neighbors with much more than autumn due dates and a shared bit of white picket fence in common. Over the years, as our children grew, traditions were born—neighborhood cookouts and fireworks on Town Day, candlelit harvest dinners in October, annual ladies’ overnights in Maine, champagne toasts, seats at the ballet, berry picking, and birthday scones. The memories accumulated as our friendship lengthened—eighteen years’ worth of pristine hand-me-down clothes delivered from her house to mine in paper shopping bags, stories shared, child-rearing advice dispensed, marriages dissected, meals eaten. Eighteen years’ worth of the everyday stuff of everyday life with a backyard neighbor who was supposed to be a friend forever. Circumstance might have thrown us together, but intention was going to be the glue that held us fast, through all the ups and downs of all the years to come.
When I was torn between a dream of moving to the country, in search of more space and time and quiet, and wanting to stay forever in the beloved suburban house where my husband and I had raised our sons; when I was driving myself and my family and my friends crazy with indecision, it was Marie who patiently helped me sort through my conflicting fears and desires.
Our best time for problem solving was always six a.m., no matter what the season. The makeup of our early-morning walking group changed from day to day, with various neighborhood friends appearing, rain or shine, to walk and talk our way around the hilly loop encircling a nearby golf course. If we timed it right, we could get up to the top in time to see the sun rise over the lake and still make it back down again to our own kitchens just as our children were waking up.
The men never did get it, could not comprehend why their wives would prefer a hike in the dark to a roll in the hay in the morning, but at least they could commiserate with one another. “They choose to walk,” my husband, Steve, once said to a few of the other guys, shaking his head in mock disbelief. It became our slogan, the words we repeated to one another on all those ridiculously cold or snowy or rainy dawns when we put on our sneakers anyway, slipped out our back doors, tried in vain to shush our wildly excited dogs, and joined one another in the driveway. “We choose to walk!” And walk we did, for years, sharing the news of our lives as we made our way through the waning darkness, the dogs forming a companionable pack of their own out in front of us.
“What will you miss most of all if you move away?” Marie asked me early one morning as we huffed up the first hill. I didn’t hesitate. “You. Carol. My friends,” I said.
“Well, you should just go ahead and move then” was her quick reply. “Your friends aren’t going anywhere. We’ll always be here and we’ll always be your friends, even if we don’t see you every day. And besides, it’s not that far. We can visit anytime.”
The call came out of the blue, as such calls usually do. I was making dinner in my parents’ kitchen, where we were living until our own house got built in a nearby town. My thoughts at that moment were all about getting the meal on the table, wondering whether Steve and my dad were on their way home from work, whether I should run upstairs to see if the boys were actually doing homework.
When the phone rang and I heard Carol’s greeting on the line, I missed the catch in her voice and launched immediately into some inconsequential tale of my own. “I have some news,” she said gently, as if apologizing in advance for being the one to interrupt my domestic doings and send me into freefall instead. “Marie is sick. And it’s serious.”
And with that we were all in a new place. I instantly remembered Marie’s words to me when she’d urged me to follow my heart: “Your friends aren’t going anywhere.” And I remembered what I’d thought silently to myself that morning nearly two years earlier, as we walked on toward the sunrise: “But someday we’re going to really need each other, and then what’ll we do?” Of course, I’d also believed that “someday” meant the very distant future, a bridge we wouldn’t have to cross for a long, long time.
As it turned out, Marie and I were both prescient. Our friendship easily survived physical separation. And, after she was diagnosed, it seemed to me that I had but one thing to offer in the face of her devastating prognosis: a willingness—no, a certainty—that I would be there for her. “Your friends aren’t going anywhere,” she’d told me, and I wanted more than anything to take her at her word. I might have moved away, but I wasn’t going anywhere, either. I could write, I could call, I could drive the hour and a half from my house to hers. One way or another, I would figure out how to show up, just as I knew she would have done for me.
Perhaps it is human nature to train our focus upon the slightest beam of hope when darkness threatens to overwhelm, to set our sights on good outcomes even in the midst of trials and fear, to believe in a better future in order to survive the worst days. For Marie, the cultivation of a steady, clear-eyed hope became her best defense against a disease that appeared out of nowhere and for no reason and began to chip relentlessly away at everything she loved. Hope was what gave her courage to persevere against the odds, and hope was the place in which I gladly met her—for even hope with slender roots in reality seemed preferable to despair.
Marie had never taken her life for granted; she had just assumed, as we all do, that there would be a lot more of it. When she was first diagnosed, the result of a colonoscopy that turned up a suspicious-looking mass in her colon, she was shattered. The sublimity of simply being alive was brought into sudden, high relief. Less than two weeks earlier, Carol, Marie, and I had been sitting in the early-autumn sunshine having a picnic lunch for my birthday. Three longtime friends chatting about mundane, forgettable things. We had complained grievously about our wrinkles and frown marks, debated the pros and cons of eyelifts. Now one of us was fighting for her life and no one was thinking about crow’s-feet anymore.
None of us knows, really, how we’d respond to a diagnosis that brings us face-to-face with our own mortality, to an illness that means that the arc of life might be bisected and our time on earth cut short. Marie struggled to get herself oriented in this new landscape, but it didn’t take her long to go into action. She set herself resolutely on the path for aggressive treatment—chemotherapy, surgery, whatever else was in her doctor’s arsenal. She cleared a space in an upstairs room and began a daily practice of yoga, meditation, and prayer. She gave up red meat, alcohol, sugar, and caffeine. And then she reached out and embraced her life as it already was, only more fiercely.
Not for her the overseas trip of a lifetime, fancy dinners out, or a string of intense experiences. All she wanted was her own ordinary days, the more of them the better. She wanted to read the newspaper at the breakfast table, take a walk with her friends, weed the garden, make her son’s favorite chocolate cake, go to her daughter’s swim meet, write a grant proposal, cook dinner, watch TV with her husband, take the dog outside, and head upstairs to bed with a book in her hand. She wanted more of what she already had.
“I’m not going to ask, ‘Why me?’ ” Marie said as she steeled herself for the first of her surgeries, “because I know it could just as well be anyone. So, why not me?” And that was the chilling truth of it. Life and death: two sides of the same coin, flipped at random, heads or tails, win or lose. I wished I could somehow share my friend’s burden or see some scrap of meaning in this illness that seemed so meaningless. What I was coming to realize instead was that the illness was just what it was; creating a sense of meaning was up to her, and up to all of us who loved her.
I thought about how lonely she must feel—she was sick, her friends were healthy. And that constant, inescapable fact isolated her no matter how much love and support I or anyone else might try to offer. Cancer created a new, unbridgeable distance between the busy, mundane workaday world we’d all once inhabited together and her new one, a bleak medical landscape through which she had no choice but to journey alone. The healthy can travel only so far into the territory of illness. We can bear witness to a loved one’s journey, walk alongside and hold a hand, offer books and pots of soup and words of encouragement, but we can’t wear someone else’s shoes or carry even a part of their burden. Only yesterday, my friend’s life had been simple and negotiable and seemingly boundless. Now it was complicated, finite, precarious. Precarious. It is an old word, with its roots in the Latin precarius, meaning “obtained by entreaty or mere favor, hence uncertain.” Suddenly, what had felt certain was not, not at all. Little wonder then that an adjective that originally meant “full of prayers” now seemed to describe everything. It seemed that if I was going to be of any help to Marie at all, I would have to renegotiate my own relationship to prayer and to make my own peace with this randomness. To confront the precarious nature of everything head on myself, just as she was being forced to do.
“The hardest thing to deal with,” she admitted soon after she was diagnosed, “is the fear.” And so I prayed for strength—for her and for her family and for me, too. If grief and gratitude are kindred emotions, two sides of a coin, then courage is what it takes to accommodate both at once, to stay focused on what is beautiful and abundant even as illness carves more and more of what you love away.
Excerpted from Magical Journey by Katrina Kenison Copyright © 2013 by Katrina Kenison. Excerpted by permission.
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1 called 9
2 loss 28
3 pierced 60
4 stillness 81
5 going 109
6 compassion 149
7 love 181
8 practice 219
9 connection 236
10 cleaning 263
11 reunion 294
12 present 329
13 summer 364
14 flow 394
afterword & acknowledgments 441
about the author 445
Posted July 7, 2013