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In Exchange for Having to Die

The Needs of Others

by MISSY BEATTIE

I ran out of my kingdom this morning, past businesses and houses with flowering lawns. Hearing music, I felt that ancient call of divinity and watched a perfect American family (wife, husband, son, and daughter) enter a place of worship, a sanctuary for some, a Sunday morning coming down or comeuppance for others, and usually, for me, real estate seldom noticed. I wondered what my mother would say, that quick-witted little woman who made pronouncements about proper church attire, if I heeded the sound of music and wandered in, wearing New Balance and spandex.

I ran on, continuing to think about my mother. The choice she made to stop medical screenings after Daddy died. Her decision to starve rather than endure weekly blood transfusions. I was at home in Kentucky during her last days.

As I write, sister Laura’s on her way to Kentucky. I haven’t been there since Mother died. I don’t know why I can’t go. I tell my siblings we should gather somewhere.

Just yesterday, I asked Erma and Laura to tell me their most meaningful memories. There was silence as each of us considered. Finally, Erma told one—her exhilaration when she placed her hand on a pregnant friend’s body and felt the baby move. I mentioned those looks of acknowledgement between Charles and me when the children did or said something hilarious or brilliant. Even now I think about that gaze, visualize a highway, physical, electric, and my heart murmurs.  Finally, we talked about a family trip to Bethany Beach, the vacation that started a tradition. Mother, Daddy, Laura, Erma, Charles, the children, and I would stay together in one condo. My brothers and their families were nearby.

When I left Laura and Erma’s house after dinner, I continued the reverie: Mother and Daddy in their car on I-64. Laura, son J and I ahead in Laura’s car. Looking back to see Mother and Daddy begin an acceleration. Their car directly to our left.  Mother’s bare ass against the front passenger window. My ladylike mother, the etiquette expert, pressing a ham.

Then this streaming detoured to the painful times—the days, weeks, months of dying and death that also give life its significance.

That also give life its significance. Our memories and knowing that we die.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if my parents die,” I’d said (circa 1980s.)

Charles: “Honey, it’s not if, it’s when.”

A couple of weeks ago, I read an essay online. It begins with a vignette, the writer’s noticing a girl, about 15, crying and talking on her cell. Should he intervene?

I told a friend to check it. After reading it, she emailed her question: “Did he get involved?” I wrote no. At least I don’t think he did. And had regret—regret that inspired his words.  Here’s an excerpt from the piece, the last paragraph:

We live in a world made up more of story than stuff. We are creatures of memory more than reminders, of love more than likes. Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult.  But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.

“Being attentive to the needs of others…” actually should be the point of life. And not merely observant of someone across the hall, across the street, across town, or just beyond the state line. Sure, this would be a start. But I mean abandoning borders, denouncing tribalism, and embracing all among/within this ecosystem we’ve labeled planet Earth.

Consider what we’d receive “in exchange for having to die.”

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio, Nashville Life Magazine, and was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email: missybeat@gmail.com.