This week, someone dear to me passed away without warning. This person was near retirement, and arguably the healthiest older-ish person I knew; she basically died while exercising.
There’ve been a lot of emotions and a background gnawing sadness. Grief, I’m discovering, is literally physically exhausting.
But through it, no booze. No cover-ups (well, there was that chocolate cake, but I tossed the rest of it today. Okay, and browsing on West Elm. But just browsing, promise.). Mostly, a tired but somehow wakeful curiosity about what I can feel and learn from this, about love and mortality and impermanence and what it means to me to live a “healthy” life, since apparently there is no insurance policy against untimely death.
But what is a healthy life? Four weeks ago, I woke up on a Thursday morning with a hangover that wasn’t that bad. I’d had vodka the night before, three vodka drinks, and all before 7:30pm. The reason? I’d gone a few evenings without my usual beer or wine, and it was Wednesday. It was Wednesday, so I deserved it. Plus, my husband wouldn’t be home until 7:30pm, so I might as well—I didn’t have anything to do except relax. I wouldn’t actually go purchase alcohol; no, that would be a clear sign that I was back-tracking on my intention to stop drinking. Instead, I’d just drink the vodka we had on hand—efficiency and economy are virtues, after all, and it was good vodka, no sense throwing it away. Plus, we had a few limes in the fruit bowl going bad. Might as well use the sugar in the cupboard and make a quick simple syrup to go with…see, it wasn’t a drink, not really. It was a creative concoction.
Anyway, I haven’t had a drink since that three vodkas night. I became fed up with the justifications, with breaking my promises to myself, and with being hungover at all. It was, I guess you could say, my bottom. I finally just surrendered to the fact that my drinking was unacceptable to me, but that I didn’t have to keep doing this to myself, didn’t have to keep drinking, and didn’t, at the deepest level of my being, even want to. My relationship to alcohol had become that bad for me, which, when making a highly personal health decision, is all that really matters.
When it comes to health, I have ample experience with wavering conviction. After failing miserably at a 100% plant-based diet, for example, tonight I returned to the foods I love eating and cooking–roasted chicken and fresh vegetables, what my husband calls “real food.” (I know, 100% plant-based food is real food too, but I just couldn’t do it. Life is too short for tofu and tempeh farts.)
I don’t know what my friend who died ate. I know she ate some animal products and lots of salads. I know she worked out like crazy and meditated all the time and looked and acted a hell of a lot younger than she was. I know lots of people older than her, in much poorer health, who are still going strong. I know I admired her and wanted to spend more time with her and wanted to be like her when I got older, even though I regrettably acknowledge I wasn’t anywhere close to her fitness level at 28 years her junior.
Her death is heartbreaking.
I find myself unable to absorb the enormity of it, but I am shocked into awareness that life will kill us. Life killed my friend, my dear friend who was full of life and who woke up on the day she died, a day like any other, brushed her teeth and got dressed, did a vigorous early morning yoga class, and then had a “cardiac event” while swimming laps at the pool before she was scheduled for work. Instead of going to the office, she took her last breaths a few hours later at a hospital.
I mean. I mean.
Life will kill us. Life killed my friend who should’ve lived until 95, and life will kill me, too. A new pedestrian bridge collapsed at FIU in Miami this week. Life killed the people unfortunate enough to be driving under it. Maybe they were healthy eaters, yogis, new dads with babies, or people nearing retirement. Maybe they had a lot of life in them, too.
Of death, I’ve always been afraid. Except afraid doesn’t quite capture it. The truth is, I’ve always felt haunted, hunted. I’ve always secretly hoped that maybe if I did all the right things in all the right ways, life wouldn’t kill me. Death would just pass me by, just sort of miss, at least for a long, long, statistically improbable time. That’s certainly what I believed about someone like my friend. Death was gonna pass her over. From everything I could tell, she did all the right things. She even, you know, drank in moderation.
Not that I’ve ever managed to do the right things in the right ways. I smoked from the age of 17 to 23, and not just a cigarette here or there but the full-on commitment to lung cancer kind of smoking. After that, the slow but steady evening drinking, wherein I didn’t exactly meet recommended exercise or nutrition guidelines. So yeah, not all the right things, not hardly. It’s taken me what feels like forever, so much time, to be clear that I’m done drinking. And even though my love affair with ethanol is over, even though my life will undoubtedly continue to get incrementally better without it, life will still kill me. It could be the full-fat dairy; I could be hit by a bus. It could be all those hours sitting listening to people (haven’t you heard that sitting is the new smoking?). It could just be my ticker, tick tick tick. When death comes, I may not even know I’m dying.
I don’t know if my friend knew. One morning a few years ago, I walked into her office in the early morning to connect. She was glowing, as usual, and I was, I’m sure, a little bit hazy from a couple of IPAs the night before. We got right into the heart of it, as we always did, and my friend shared with breathy excitement her latest meditation practice: Opening herself to absolutely everything that came into her awareness, total and complete openness and non-resistance. Incredible, she’d said smiling, as if she’d just hiked a steep mountain to a stunning vista, another thing she actually did on a regular basis. I don’t know if she knew she was dying, but she sure practiced life as if she could have to make an immediate, sudden departure. We all wanted more time with her, more time. We got the time we got.
My friend knew about addiction, about that seemingly endless loop that steals and stretches time. Among her countless contributions, she developed and facilitated healing spaces for people struggling with eating disorders. She intimately knew the landscape of desire and self-destruction, its particular dark pull. Because she knew, she gave herself from a rarely found realness.
I don’t know. I still feel her light, maybe even more warm and vivid since her death. I know that’s a cheesy thing to say about somebody, but you gotta believe me, she had light. When she cast it on me, I felt like I was the only person in her beautiful lit-up world. Everyone she touched bloomed from her care. It was remarkable to see. Everyone she touched is grieving her death, which is also, in its own devastating way, remarkable to see. So many ripples in the proverbial pond, so many rivers of influence.
And here I am, writing this instead of being 2 or 3 socially acceptable glasses into a bottle of earthy red wine on a Thursday night, a few nights after my friend’s death. Here I am sitting on the couch next to my husband who is also on his laptop doing something creative, Bob Dylan in the background (I bet my friend loved Bob Dylan, she was of that time), both of us stone cold sober. Yes, we had animal for dinner tonight. Yes, we eat too many fried foods and desserts and, heck, we probably shouldn’t be sitting right now. But the food was delicious, and Bob Dylan still lifts me in his achy way, and well, no matter how long until life kills me, I do know one personal truth for certain: From a booze-filled haze, the light just doesn’t shine as brightly.