Time and Distance

40                                                                      50

The distance between 40 and 50 is more than a decade more than the number 10, more than

                      1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

It’s more than 5+5 or 5×2. It’s more than 3650 days.

It’s the distance between having a healthy father and having no father at all. It’s the distance between sharing life with a loving partner and being single. It’s the unimportant stuff like more grey hair and deeper wrinkles, hair growing places it isn’t supposed to and skin that’s starting to look like crepe.

It’s giving a shit about this upcoming birthday, when 40 came and went like it was no big deal.

40 was a cake walk, so I didn’t think I’d experience this existential stuff as I look down the barrel of the “Big 5-0.” I’ve always told myself, “Age is just a number. What matters is how you feel inside.” Well, that’s the difference between 40 and 50 too – this time I do feel different. Maybe it’s because I’m half an orphan now or maybe it’s something else. It feels kinda like it’s a genetic thing – that a switch has flipped and my genes have decided that I’m supposed to start feeling my age now. My mortality is more tangible in a very unsettling and heavy way that I’ve never felt before.

As dictated by the law of attraction, every time I turn around there’s another reference to death, dying, and grief. The other day I turned on CBC Radio and learned about a smartphone application called “WeCroak.” The developer of the app was inspired by the Bhutanese belief that “contemplating death five times a day brings happiness.” I downloaded it before the show was half over. The first friend I told about it looked at me like I was crazy. “That’s morbid,” he said, a tinge of disgust and mild curiosity in his voice.

WeCroak pings me randomly, five times a day with the message, “Don’t forget, you’re doing to die.“ If you click on the reminder, a quote comes up related to death and dying.

Here’s the one I got just a few minutes ago:

But every moment of life is the last;
every poem is a death poem.
Why then should I write one at this time.
In my last hours, I have no poem.

                                                              Matsuo Basho

Some of the quotes, like the one above, strike me as rather fatalistic – they are more of a downer than inspiring. Yet others are effective in lighting a fire under me and give me the desire to get things done before it’s too late. It’s too early to say whether these five daily reminders will actually make me happier, but I’m willing to give it a try.

30                                                                        50

30 and 50? Well yeah, they’re even further apart.

                            20

years that led me to divorce, Costa Rica and the end of a scientific career so I could move to Mexico…almost 20 years following my dream to learn to surf.

It’s

                                            33

The age of my friend and colleague who was killed in an avalanche in April 1998. His death shook me hard out of a deep sleep of complacency because I mistakenly believed I had all the time in the world to do the things that I dreamed of doing. I realized that it was NOW or NEVER or life would pass me by, or worse get cut short before I had the chance to take those trips to see the world, be in a loving supportive relationship…with myself (and maybe one day with a man).

I’m not sure why, but I used to regard the “Bucket List” phenomenon with some disdain. Contemplating turning 50 has given rise to some serious contemplation about what I have and haven’t accomplished yet in this life. I mean, I still haven’t been to France, Italy or Spain! Seriously? I shake my head and consider why that is. Life, I suppose…life getting in the way of living. I never seem to have the money or freedom to make those big trips. That’s going to change. It must change.

Perhaps that’s what these big decadal birthdays are for – to induce the kind of consideration about where we are at in life in comparison with where we want to be. I wonder what I’ll write about in the coming 10 years. Will I finally get my book done? Will it be published? Will I ride a bigger wave? Rent a little house in the country in France where I’ll write poetry and edit my book? Maybe I’ll finally learn the secret to happiness…five contemplations of death at a time.

The Messenger

Our dog Zee is going blind. The vet informed me that she has glaucoma and an auto-immune disease that’s making her body attack itself. Yes, not one, but two diseases affecting her eyes. One at a time, her eyes swelled up into big, bulbous, blood shot orbs with milky irises at their centers. The first to swell then shrank to a fraction of its size, sank back into its orbit, where it now sits wrinkled like a raisin and useless as the tit on a boar. Then the left eye followed suit and blew up to twice its normal size. We’d already taken her to the vet for the right eye, so when the left started expanding I squeezed in the same drops and shuttled her off to the vet with great trepidation  – I knew that the news would not be good. He kept her for observation for three days (it broke my heart to leave her there, wondering why I’d abandoned her in a strange-smelling cage). When I returned he gave us more drops and told me to keep applying both. At this point, he was convinced that she was completely blind, that the pressure in her eye caused by the glaucoma had ruptured the connection between the retina and the optic nerve, but I hold out hope none-the-less. I continue more than thirty days later to drop the clear liquid medicine into her left eye twice daily.
I knew things were looking bleak when she walked off the retaining wall one afternoon. We’d just been to the beach and she seemed to be doing pretty well, when I watched, dumbfounded, as she walked along the edge of the retaining wall and then stepped right out into open space, falling a good four feet to the ground below. I’m somewhat relieved that from my vantage point I couldn’t see her land because when I ran the hundred meters or so around the wall to see if she was okay (silently praying please be okay, please be okay) she clearly had landed on her face, poor dog. She was spitting sand and dirt, closing and opening her mouth and shaking her head as she stumbled to and fro about the yard. I checked her for serious injury, somehow she’d managed to escape with nothing more than a mouth full of dirt (mind you, I suspect the next day, if she could have, she’d have requested an Advil or two for the pain in her nose, neck and goodness knows what other body parts). Then I noticed a thick branch of one of the bougainvillea shrubs I’d just pruned was broken through. I said another prayer, this time of thanks, that she hadn’t poked one of her failing eyes out altogether.
After the fall from the wall, I took extra care to make sure she wasn’t going to pull a similar stunt while I stood idly by. My heart ached when she started walking into walls, cabinets, stone columns and wooden posts. I started yelling the command, “CAREFUL Zee!” every time I saw her approaching a solid upright surface. Slowly she learned that this meant danger and pain were imminent. She fell a couple feet off the side of the stairs to the beach one day, again ending up with a mouth full of dirt and sending my heart squeezing down upon itself in empathetic pain. I began walking her on a leash up and down the long uneven stairs and issuing commands as we approached each step, “Step Zee,…Big Step,…Step.” I’d become a seeing-eye human.
On the beach I worried about her getting carried away in the beach break that she’s always loved to roll around in. It is her habit to trot down into the white water as it rushes up onto the sand, flop onto her side and then onto her back, her legs waving back and forth as she gets wet and her coat becomes a sandy mess. She rubs her head into the sand, flops around a few more times and then gets up and shakes it all off, refreshed, renewed. I imagine it’s like a mini spa treatment – exfoliating and invigorating.
“Zee” is short for “Crazy,” a name she earned when she first arrived in Vinorama and turned the then two-dog household upside-down with her high energy hi-jinx. Most evenings, as the sun sinks towards the horizon, the dogs and I like to walk or run down to a place where there are several rocky islets out in the water.  The rocks are too often inundated by the waves at high tide, making them poor nesting grounds, but Pelicans, seagulls, terns and petrels use them as a resting place. Up until a few years ago Zee, seeing the birds, would swim the 30 or 40 yards out to the rocks and, with the tide and swell tossing her about, somehow manage to scramble up to chase those birds with all the energy and gusto of a pup.
It’s astonishing and, yes, a bit depressing what a difference a few years make.
She has always been and, in spite of current circumstances, remains a happy dog. More than any of our other five dogs who are given to bouts of worry, fear or bad temper, Zee has always been content. Even in the haze of pressing darkness, she trots down the beach head held high, tail wagging. She still enjoys a snack of sun-dried porcupine fish – her nose clearly unaffected by what it is that ails her eyes – and a good roll in the surf. But I watch her closely now, tuning in to her mood, acutely aware that in time she may be given over to bouts of depression or confusion. I see concern wash over her face when she ignores my cries to be careful and walks headlong into a wall of granite where just a moment ago it was smooth sailing over soft moist sand. We give her extra treats and let her lick the dinner plates as compensation.
Watching her struggle I am acutely aware that this is beginning of the end for her. She’s ten years old and on the high side of a slippery slope. We used to call her “Zee the Intrepid” for her adventurous nature with the sea. Now I think “Zee the Messenger” might be more appropriate. She serves to remind me every day that we are mortal and have little say in when our time here is up. I feel the volume on the urgency to leave behind some legacy I’ve been feeling in recent years get cranked up full bore. What have I done with this life of mine? What of value will be left behind?
So I keep writing in the hope that it will mean something to someone.