Crash Course in Courage

By Marion Winik

Were I to live to be 100, I would live again as long as I have so far, for I turned 50 this year. And although my instinct is to grab at the chance for all that future, all that unfolding and unspooling and revealing and recurring, all those seasons going round and round, my view from this hypothetical midpoint is tempered by everything that has gone before.

My fiftieth year was a harrowing one, containing the long illness and death of my mother and the collapse of my troubled marriage. A friend’s 16-year-old daughter was killed. Another friend six years younger than I lay in bed, mysteriously failing.

For the first two thirds of the year, I worked on a project writing portraits of people I had known who had died. I started with a family friend I’d known when I was nine, worked through my father, my first husband, a stillborn child, and teenage friends of my children. Right around the time I’d gotten up to the present, logging about 50 entries, both my mother and my friend were pronounced incurable. I decided to consider that manuscript complete.

Were I to live 50 more years, how many more volumes of that book could I fell? I would lose most of my friends and dear ones. And I might bury a child or a grandchild. When I imagine facing all that pain, carrying all that loss, I feel very quiet inside. Not totally unwilling, but quiet.

I wonder if it is possible that life is actually about coming to terms with loss. Losing not just loved ones to death, but also facing and assimilating a multitude of other losses, tangible and intangible, great and small. Strands of hair in the drain of the shower, health and vigor, youth itself. A broken vase, a lost purse, a whole house taken by fire or flood. Friendships, jobs, pets, lovers, marriages.

But with all that darkness, there is light as well. So many of the beautiful things we do and make – quilts, gardens, shrines, poems, scrapbooks – have loss at their root. So many acts of kindness and empathy, so many new bonds between people. Even political and social movements are often founded in the grief of one person or many.

Whatever else a life of 100 years would bring, it would be the post-doctoral course in letting go. That scares me to the core. But being afraid is the signal to start being brave, and trying to make the brave choice is past of what’s gotten me this far. So, yes I think I would sign up.

This article was originally printed in More Magazine. Marion Winik is the author, most recently, of The Glen Rock Book of the Dead

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