The prompt this time was inspired by an aria from La Sonnambula, but I had the following poem by Marie Howe stuck in my head, especially the title, “What the Living Do.”
What I wrote follows the poem.
What the Living Do
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss–we want more and more and then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
On the radio today, a group of philosophers debated the issue of fairness, and leapt around in the arena of justice and liberation, tribal culture, even economic prowess, but when they touched down for a moment on the topic of family, I got stuck.
Family. Still the central focus in the lives of human beings, they said. Family. Where we spend 90% of our time with others. Family. I got stuck there, sliding over the new Bay Bridge, white and sleek, the old bridge right next to us, rusted out and slowly being dismantled. I got stuck on the bridge on the concept of family.
I had a family life as a young person, and the majority of my siblings are still alive. But even though they and many close friends—my chosen family—live nearby, I still come home to an empty apartment every night. I still sleep alone at night.
I keep thinking I’ll get used to it, or it will change. I tell myself that everything is temporary, but some part of me doesn’t believe it. Some part of me is sure that this is it, that the beginning of the end is here. The long, slow road to a head of grey hair and brittle bones is beginning.
I know people find love after 50, they start new lives. But I have to ask myself, what’s next? Because waiting for the last half of my life to show up and surprise me doesn’t seem like a good plan.
Here’s what I thought on that bridge that surprised me: I’ll never have children. I won’t have my own family. I’ll never know the oxytocin flood of a baby against my chest, or push a stroller down 24th Street. I may one day marry and find I have a new, blended family; I may marry into some satellite version of parenthood, some faux version of this, but I will not have children and a family. I just needed to say it. I need to hear it. I need it to be said.
Will you tell me I’m freer than others? That my spa days or Sunday night disco dancing is a privilege that only single people have? That I have no worries about my childen’s college tuition, or their student loans, or worse yet, raising a child only to lose him or her to an accident or addiction. And you’re right, of course, you’re right.
And I will vote, and get my hair cut, and take long walks, and buy expensive skin care products, and plan for the future. I will. Even without a family. I will grow older, grow forward, grow up. This will happen. Even as I push away loneliness, the awareness of what did not happen. I will climb into that big, comfortable, empty bed. I’ll do all of that. It’s what the living do.