« A list of good books for a teenager who loves to read | Main | Christians, Boy Scouts, and God's work »

Only the good die young

You know, not a day goes by that I don't think of Julia.
She was my template for how to *live.* How to really drink up life, enjoy every second, and if you're not enjoying what you're doing, dammit, change it.
She was strong and brave and funny and fierce and she danced and drank and loved and played with passion and joy and life, and then she was dead at 29.
I adored her the way I'd never loved a friend: Hero worship and sisterhood and solidarity all in one. She died the year after I got married, in March of 1998.
She never got to see the last Seinfeld, the rise of the Internet, Harry Potter. She never had an iPhone. She never got to get married, or to have a baby.
And yet, every day, when I'm doubting myself, or feeling down, or I wonder what path to take, I ask myself what Julia would do. And the answer, usually, is "Go out and kick some ass!," though sometimes the answer is, "Oh, sweetie, don't be so hard on yourself."
She has children all over the country named after her. Dozens of friends, probably hundreds, stunned by her death. A sister who is raising three boys who will never meet their aunt. A brother who is, I'm sure, still surprised, as I am, some days, to wake up and find out she's not there.
And now, my father is dying. He's 81 years old. He, too, lived passionately, but in a much different way. He got to live eight centuries, and so he's had three wives, four or five live-in girlfriends, five children from his wives. He did have a son named after him, but once he abandoned the son, his name was changed. Besides, it doesn't count if you name the child after yourself. He still doesn't have an iPhone, and probably doesn't know who Harry Potter is. But I very seldom ask myself, "What would my dad say about this?"
And yet, after all that life, my father still wants more.
He was put into hospice care today. The doctor said they had to have "an end-of-life discussion."
My dad asked, "Will I get better?"
Well, no, he won't. Clearly.
February of 2012, he was given less than a year to live. Shorter than that if he went back to drinking. He's still drinking.
My mother says he hasn't been out of his chair in two weeks. The doctor said that his breathing will get harder and harder, and then one day soon, he'll just stop breathing. It's actually a very painless way to die.
But you know what? He doesn't want to die. He wants to buy a house.
Until today, he was telling everyone that he was going to get better.
That he was going to go buy a little house up the road.
He put a down payment on a place he's seen one time, that's worth about $40,000 and needs a ton of work.
He's hired a plumber to clean out a line to the street. He's got two dumpsters over there, and a guy to haul away debris and garbage. He got a lawn guy to go mow and clean up.
Meanwhile, there's no money left at home for my mother and him to eat or pay bills.
But he sent my mother to Tuesday Morning (a discount store) to go buy a ceiling fan for his new house. The fan is $150. But it's on sale from $350, so this is a good deal, and it's just the touch his new house needs. He can see all this, and dream about all this, and feel it in his bones: It's going to happen.
So my mother, who is 75 and decrepit and passes out regularly from uncontrolled diabetes, drove the 65 miles to to the store to go get the ceiling fan, spent their last $150 on it, and came back so he could sit with it in his lap.
He can dream about his little house, with his ceiling fans, and his chickens, and of growing tomatoes.
My father still likes to cook.
My father doesn't do anything by halves -- just like Julia. If he's going to cook, dammit, he's going all in. It's Julia Child's best recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, cooked up in a new $150 stockpot, stirred with the right ladle, or it's no use even starting. There is no "throwing things together in a pot." That's not cooking. Cooking is an art, with a form and a beauty all it's own.
But he can't come to the kitchen anymore. He can't get out of his chair at all.
So Sunday, he wanted to make pea soup.
He got out his fancy cookbook -- I would assume it's Julia Child, but I don't know if she has a pea soup recipe -- and my mother brought him a knife and a cutting board in the living room, and he chopped the carrots, because he said she couldn't do them right.
Then he took a nap, and woke up and chopped onions, because he said he was the only one who could chop onions properly. Then a nap, then celery.
Then he made her measure and bring an entire gallon of water into the living room, because he didn't believe that she would put a whole gallon of water into the pot unless he saw it first.
Then he yelled from his chair to give him updates on how it looked while it was cooking while she stood in the kitchen and watched.
It is sad and sweet and horrifying and wonderful at the same time: He is trapped in this body that won't work, and all he wants to do is make dinner for himself, and he can't do it. So my mother, who has been his nemesis and companion and enemy and lover for almost fifty years, helped him do it. And I'm sure he was glad that he could make it and eat it, at the same time that he was bitter and angry that he couldn't make it without her help.
And tonight, he is in a hospital, being fed hospital food, and he will never cook again. My mother is making plans to give away his cookware.
But here's the thing: He had 81 years to chase his dreams. To find peace. To spend time with his grandchildren, and love a good woman, and find God if he wanted to, and grow pounds of tomatoes, and buy a piece of property to leave a legacy behind.
And he spent them fighting, and drinking, and working overtime. And playing pool. Lot of pool.
I used to shoot pool with Julia, and think of my father.
Now I shoot pool and think of Julia.
She died without any notice.
She never got to say goodbye, or to make peace (though I will swear until I die that she came to me in a dream to say goodbye, and I *never* have weird dreams and I don't believe in them.)
And yet, because of the way she lived, she is remembered with a grin. With a laugh. With "a Julia story," and boy, there are a lot of them to tell. Most involve mischief, laughter, some alcohol, and a lot of fun.
So, in 29 years, she left a legacy that most people work their whole lives to achieve.
And yet my father, in 81 years, leaves a tangled mess of mixed feeling, regret, sadness and, most of all, a feeling of opportunities wasted, potential squandered, missed chances and broken dreams.
Julia's left a feeling of gratitude for having been part of her life, for even a brief time. Of a life that had so much good squeezed into such an intense package that you felt she never wasted one minute being miserable.
That in the end, if Julia had lived to be 81, she certainly wouldn't be longing for more time to cook, wondering if this pot of pea soup would bring her closure, if one more year to raise chickens would bring happiness.
Instead, I think, she'd meet it as she met everything: Head-on, grin on her face, ready for adventure after a life well-lived.
And that, I think, is what I'm going to take as my inheritance from Julia, and from my dad: That in the end, it doesn't matter how you die, or how long you live, or what kind of intensity and passion you have. It's what you do with that passion. It's not about how much overtime you can work. It's how you make other people feel. It's how kind you are. How much you realize that *now* matters. And that connections are all we have.
Julia learned this early, and she got it right. And I will be forever grateful for her, though I'm still pissed off that she's gone.
But my dad never learned it. He's still dreaming of the little place in the country, with chickens, where he'll find happiness.
I hope he finds it.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>