We’re walking along the river on a breathtakingly beautiful May evening and you tell me that life generally sucks and not much worth experiencing happens after you’re 28—and how do people manage to live through their 50s, 60s, beyond, you don’t know. (And look what we’ve done over the past year to prolong the lives of those in their 80s, WTF is that all about.)
I crinkle my nose and raise my eyebrows and know, now, not to take it personally—you’ve got a thing about 28, and reminding you that you were a few weeks past 28 and I almost 41 when we met, and you already felt that you were past your peak while I was feeling I was yet to hit my prime is not what this story is about.
This story is, I think, about perception. Life past your youth, you say, requires committed self-delusion and would it not be more courageous if people accepted how futile things were and, when they realized that this was it, nothing but a tread mill, a hamster’s exercise wheel—this last, my metaphor not yours—they’d just end things. Properly, with professional assistance—institutionalized euthanasia on request.
I stiffen. My arm is looped through your freshly vaccinated one and my fingers rest lightly on your forearm. I can feel your heart beat through my fingertips, so you feel my stiffening.
“I’m not suicidal,” you say, quickly, forcefully, clarifying because you know you must clarify this to me, you know where any suspicion of this will take me.
“But you’re in a really shitty place.”
“No. I just know life is shit. Has always been shit. But I’m fine. There is a difference.”
You’re not fine, but I won’t argue. I don’t know if it’s pandemic frustration or professional malaise talking—you’re experiencing both in spades—or the anxiety about the health of your faraway loved ones that’s been consuming you for weeks. I suppose all of the above and I suppose it doesn’t matter. Root causes matter much less than pop psychologists and life coaches would have us believe.
I stroke your forearm and think—today, I believe, I know life is beautiful. Because caterpillars turn into butterflies and there are bees building a ground nest outside my front door and we just saw a beaver swimming in the river, right downtown, glass skyscrapers in the background, also, isn’t that crescent of a moon something else? But two, three months ago, I could barely get out of bed and I thought the weight I was carrying would crush me, and I definitely did not think live was beautiful then—I wasn’t particularly sure it was worth living, it just had to be endured, because Cinder, Flora, Ender.
So I won’t insult you with platitudes and clichés—I just stroke your arm.
You switch topics, a little, and talk about the delusions of religion. I don’t disagree, and neither of us mocks. We both know that, for the most part, those with faith are happier than we are. Our loved ones cease to exist when they stop breathing—your uncle, my uncle, both gone forever now.
Theirs go to paradise.
“Except Uncle Mo. He’s definitely in hell.”
And you laugh. I laugh with you. The stiffening in my spine relaxes, a little.
I’m not worried that you will kill yourself. You are, I think, on a very basic level, both too arrogant and too loving to do that, too aware of your importance to your family, your friends—to me. You know your death would destroy us. If things ever get truly dark for you, you will push through them, as I do, not for yourself, but for the people you love, the people who love you.
And I know, too well, from too much painful and so futile actions with my loved ones in the past, that nothing I say or do to you while you’re in this “life is shit” place will change anything, for you. It will just drain me, maybe make me hate you.
Instead, I start planning my birthday party. Three years shy of 50 this year, second pandemic birthday—fuck it all hard, I want to party all weekend. I want cake and balloons and flowers and dancing.
Maybe a piñata.
“Oh my god, you are a 47 year old child.”
Sometimes. But both Jesus and the Buddha thought that imitating a child’s mind brought adults closer to truth, happiness, salvation.
(You said the same thing to me shortly after we met, do you remember? “You are a 40 year old child.” I shrugged, and I kept on tantruming, crying until you fed me ice cream.)
“Can we do all those things?” I ask, five years old, greedy for more cake than is good for me.
“We can do anything you want. It’s your birthday.”
Life is beautiful. Sometimes. And sometimes—often—it is so hard, a slog, it takes superhuman effort to get out of bed. Do the things.
But we do them. Because sometimes, there’s cake and a piñata and always, there are people we love who love us.
PS You see the implication, though, right? Check in on the lonely people in your life. The loathsome ones especially. I know it’s hard as fuck, cause you’ve barely got the bandwidth to take care of yourself and the ones you love right now—check in on Aunt Augusta too. She needs you.
If you can’t bring yourself to text or call… send cake.
Or a piñata.