It’s been ninety-six years since my mother’s birth and two years since her passing, give or take elastic stretches of time. The feeling of time’s passage has bent in ways that elude my measure, during the pandemic. Sometimes the last two years have felt longer than ninety-six.
As a family and community, it took us those two stretched years to be able to gather to celebrate her creative, wild, and loving life. It was worth the wait. What an honor it will forever be, to be the son of someone so inspirational in worlds of aviation, art, nature, parenting, community involvement, and loving kindness. Her life and legacy have earned her a memorable place in our regional history, of which she would be shy. (See https://cgsentinel.com/article/a-soaring-celebration-for-the-life-of-shirley-froyd)
I’ve learned so much about the art of living from her, and also about the art of leaving this life. Both are worth celebration.
Living inevitably includes leaving, after all. Yet life’s endless cycles transcend our individual births and deaths, offering us continuance. Leaving our bodies can happen in an instant; but leaving a positive impact can happen long after we’ve gone to rest. Few of us will attain the lasting impact of Beethoven, Rumi, or John Lennon, let alone the spiritual masters. Yet what we seed with our lives grows a life of its own, which can quietly take generations to root. What we seed can thrive even if our role in its growth is unnoticed by anyone.
Mindful continuance takes planning. My mother gently planned hers for decades. I marveled at how gracefully she balanced her endless love of life with a vision for times beyond her passing. From midlife onward, she worked to ensure that her loving spirit and tangible assets would still serve causes of environment, art, family, and community. While painting masterfully, traveling adventurously, working diligently, and loving patiently, she also did the quiet groundwork of law and finance that would allow us the greatest ease in carrying out her wishes of service. To guide her vision now is my honor and responsibility. It guides me in turn.
To ask questions of our leaving is to deepen our living. Which causes and people do we wish to serve? How? With what impact? Why? To answer well in advance not only deepens the effect we’ll have when we’re gone; it also deepens our experience of the present moment. It clarifies our priorities. It makes each living moment’s preciousness more apparent. It illuminates our daily choices.
When my mother was 91 years old—three years before her death—I faced one of those minor but vital choices. A total solar eclipse would visit us in Oregon… almost. At home, we weren’t quite in the path of totality. We’d see 97%, but in an eclipse, the last three percent are everything. To see the scintillating moments of darkness, we’d have to drive distances that her aging body might not be able to handle. It would surely be her last eclipse, though. Might be my last one as well. I could risk true trouble taking her; I could go to totality without her; or we could stay and make the best of 97% together. Thinking of my choices, the eclipse seemed emblematic of her brilliance and her dimming, and of the compromises service asks.
I chose to stay home with her, taking her with cane and chair to join the crowd on the local dam to take in what 97% offered. It’s a choice I’ll never regret, even though the sun seemed to barely dim, as the magic moments of darkness eluded us. Yet I took this favorite picture of her then, as well as others capturing her amusement and joy with eclipse glasses on. It was her own eclipse I stayed most focused on watching, and in that my own service goals were brilliantly illuminated. I’d choose to be with her for every possible moment until her passing.
In her last earthly days, she too was 97% dimmed. Her memory and body became too fragmented to stay home in the woods, despite my 24-hour care and the assistance of those we hired. In the memory care center, I’d often hold her hands for hours through the blue sterile gloves I was required to wear, in order to see her at all. She was otherwise almost alone, as the pandemic eclipsed community.
As I watched her final three degrees of leaving, time became even more elastic. Her revisitations of memories were nonlinear, surreal, bright even in the frequent silences between us. I could see them flash as light in her eyes, old moments dancing newly weightless, removed at last from the forward ticking of seconds. Time began to move in different directions, entering dimensions where clocks cannot go. She entered too, one quiet final night.
I thought of this again recently when the odd ritual of Daylight Savings Time arrived, saving nothing. Every year I reliably forget to change at least one clock, and this time it was the one in my mother’s art studio (now my own). It’s a redwood burl clock she crafted herself, and when I went to adjust it two days later, the second hand began moving backwards the instant I touched it. It still ticked accurate seconds, but in reverse. I left it alone for a couple of days, amused to repeatedly see that yes, it was still unwinding time with perfect rhythm and persistence. I finally decided I’d set the hour and minute hands in mirror image of the “real” time, and let it continue to run backwards. But as soon as I touched the clock again, the second hand reversed course once more. We can never control time’s ways.
With time again moving forward, I return to my questions of artful leaving, which I now ask you. What causes and people do you wish to forever serve? With what result? Why? I find it essential that we keep asking as our ages and answers shift. It deepens our celebration of this moment, to ask and answer together. Merely by asking we serve the ones to come, and in that service our joy lives, and joy serves us now without one tick of delay.