Intimations of Mortality

This delightful piece is presented with gratitude to guest blogger Teresa Bandrowska.

How on earth did I get here ?

As another Solstice passes, another new year begins, and I roll into yet another turn around the sun, I find myself reflecting upon age, and life, and death.  This has always been a time for me to pause, to remember the year just gone, and to think upon the inevitable turning of the Wheel.

I just turned sixty-three, which seems preposterous to me! I find myself wondering how on earth I got here, when I still feel the same as I ever did.  Who is that old lady in the mirror? 

Inside me, nestled like Russian dolls, are all my younger selves, with all their startling discoveries, profound emotions, wondrous ideas, cringe-provoking mistakes, and wild adventures.  There are the labyrinthian spirals of memories and dreams, easily accessible and instantly available, though sometimes blurred at the edges, embarrassing to recall, difficult to distinguish, lying tangled together like kittens.

There is my infant self, crawling to the cat’s dish, where my mother, aghast, finds me cheerily eating the remnants of his dinner.   There I am at four, standing untethered in the back of the car while my mother, lying across the seat, breathes strange, deep, rhythmic breaths and my father speeds us to the hospital.  As usual, I am providing my own musical accompaniment to my life story, sing-songing  “we’re going to the hospital, we’re going to the hospital”.  My baby brother is born just a few minutes after we arrive, and the nurse brings him out to us.  I get to hold him, so sweet, fresh and rosy.  Mission accomplished, I feel, and so I proudly announce that I will be taking him home now.  Everyone laughs; I am puzzled, thinking it is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.  

There I am on the magical streets of my childhood neighbourhood, riding my new, rainbow-tassled, metallic blue CCM bicycle, named Blue Jay and imagined as my trusty steed.  We children owned the streets by day, springing eagerly out of almost every house right after breakfast, running freely in all seasons, all weathers, all day long, until the streetlights came on.  We formed spontaneous games of baseball, hockey, Ghost-in-the-Garden, make-believe.  We hopped through countless hopscotch grids, we sang endless skipping songs while double-dutching, trying to last longer and longer before tripping up in heaps of laughter.  We built forts in the massive snowbanks lining the curbs, or up in “The Woods” at the top of the street.  

The Woods was our special place, sacred, and beloved by all the children. We walked through their magical mystery four times daily as we trod to school in the morning, back for lunch, and there and back again in the afternoons. There, when the last ragged heaps of winter snow had finally dissolved into the earth, and the forest was clad in that new, bright, dappled green that is so good for the eyes, we found sparkling carpets of trout lilies and violets dancing to abundant birdsong.  There, in sunlit meadows,  we picked wild strawberries in June, our mouths and fingers stained red, bringing home a few squishy, delicious samples to share.  There, basking in the golden, spicy aroma of the rich autumn soil, among the roots of old maples, oaks and birches, my mother and I found treasured gifts of wild mushrooms to stew, fry or dry.   The Woods gave us boggy puddles so we could get soakers and catch tadpoles, ancient oaks to climb, with hollows where we could leave secret messages for each other, and plenty of good hiding places for games.  The Woods nourished in me a profound and abiding love for this Earth, for the tangled web of life upon it,  and for all our kindred creatures.

Poof!  My childhood recedes, and there I see my sullen, teenage self, stewing and moping about my unfair, Old-World parents.  I spend endless hours shut up in my bedroom, writing long laments in my diary, reading MAD magazine, covering my walls with Tiger Beat posters of soooo cute teen idols, listening to the Top AM Hits on my crackly clock radio and dreaming of kissing boys.  

Poof! I am sixteen, running egotistically wild and free, having escaped the confines of both high school (made it through by the skin of my teeth), and home.  I roam the continent, and Europe as well.  I am hitchhiking wherever the wind takes me, across Canada, across the States, down into Mexico.  I love the feeling of Being Here Now, of not knowing where I will end up that day,  who I will meet, or what I will encounter.  I read Vonnegut, Hesse, Watts, Seven Arrows, the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita. I dress in home-made peasant dresses, sunbonnets and granny boots, and have long, philosophical discussions around campfires.  I try all sorts of substances and potions to alter my consciousness.   I think I know everything there is to know and have accumulated the entire Wisdom of the Ages.  And my naivete saves me in numerous sticky situations.

I love the feeling of being here now.

Poof! I am riding among the jeweled lochs and firths of Scotland, where numerous rainbows grace our passage through the ever-changing weather.  When a sudden burst of sun cracks through the mist, I know, with certainty, and without knowing how I know, that I am pregnant.  Next spring, I become a mother for the first time, which likewise cracks me open, thrusting me into a whole new and unimagined world of parenthood.  I am responsible!  I am attentive!  I am healthy!  I am deliriously thrilled with myself, and infinitely in love with my daughter.  The Vision-quest of labour and birth brings me an entirely new and profound sense of accomplishment and power. It likewise opens the door to what becomes my vocation: serving people as they navigate their own journeys into parenthood.  

My adult self worked hard, raised four amazingly self-assured, kind people, rolled through one marriage, one divorce, and one crazy love affair.  My natural optimism was severely tested, and somehow survived, through tragic deaths, injuries, illnesses, broken hearts, times of sadness and of grief.  I realised I did NOT know everything, and life was often hard.  The years sail on, faster and faster; like they say, life goes faster at the end, like a roll of toilet paper.  

So here we are, at sixty-three, this “I”, and all my younger selves.  It is getting crowded in here! I blinked, and married an old friend who is the best husband in the universe.  I blinked, and I’ve been a grandmother for ten years, with eight new additions to our genepool.  I blinked, and stopped attending births, moving into semi-retirement.  I have more sags and wrinkles, picked up a few dozen extra pounds of flesh, am more than a little worse for wear and tear. There are a few more creaky bits, and I feel in danger of fossilizing if I sit for any length of time. Yet,  I feel better in my own skin, tags and all.  I don’t mind so much how I look, or what others think of me. I no longer suffer fools or tyrants gladly. 

I have a nice crop of chin hairs now, where once, in early middle age, there was only a lone, curly one.  I had dubbed it my “witch’s hair”, and would stroke it sagely, while thinking it made me appear wiser and witchier.  I now have at least a coven, sprouting gaily and randomly at all angles, and I find myself not much wiser,  nor much witchier.  There is even one reliable, reappearing regular, thicker and sharper than the others, that grows at the precise angle needed to poke annoyingly into the corner of my mouth.  I have taken to snipping them when they get long enough to floss my teeth. Recently, I joined my 95-year-old mother in a memorable mother/daughter moment, laughing as, in tandem, we snipped off our chin hairs.  

Here I find myself, well-started into my seventh decade, as we hurtle into the third decade of this new millennium, wondering where the years went, and wondering what the years will bring.  I still feel the exhilaration of not knowing what may happen today, of learning new things, of sharing ideas and experiences with others.  I still feel the world is beautiful, and terrible, pretty much in equal measure.  This pandemic has brought new challenges for me and all my selves, as it has for all of us.  I guess we signed up for a wild ride!  

However long or short my allotted time here remains, however pleasant or difficult, I count my blessings, I gather my courage, and I look forward to the joys and trials that are yet to come.  Happy 2021!

Teresa Bandrowska