31 October 2008

Reactions to Halloween and birthdays

Two old brothers live together, and one loves Halloween. He wants to buy out the candy store and greet all the neighborhood kids as they come by in their costumes. The other brother wants to turn the lights off, so no one will think they're home and ring their doorbell. The latter overrules the former, and the first brother has to be 'the creepy old man' walking by the elementary school yard just to get a glimpse of the festivities-- a far cry from interacting face-to-face and giving out candy to happy kids. Maybe these old men that some consider 'creepy' aren't actually creepy at all-- just lonely, wanting to share in some holiday fun and potentially living with a grumpy brother who wants to shut out the world.

This is a true story. The man who wanted to play for an evening was my father, who lives with my uncle in my grandparents' old house in a little cul-de-sac, and my heart cracks a bit just thinking about this again.

It makes me think of this quote by Charles R. Swindoll: "Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it." Or, as my generally happy friend, Faisal, says, "Even the crappy experiences are good, because they make for good stories."

So, it all comes full circle: I started this blog about death and now get to tie it all together with people's reactions to life and celebrating birth. Not a new birth this time, but the Halloween birthday of someone I love. :-)

I find people's reactions to birthdays fascinating. Some people don't tell anyone their birthday, and other people throw themselves a huge bash and invite everyone they know. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. To me, celebrating a birthday is saying we're glad that person is alive. So, those who hide their birthdays make me sad: are they not happy to be alive? Do they not think others are happy they're alive? (Or is it just that fixation with youth, which is a-whole-nother post? Maybe next time.)

What's your ideal birthday? Mine is really simple: hang out with my best friend, eat good food, laugh a lot, say cheers and eat some noodles to symbolize a long life. Maybe do something fun (go for a hike or a snorkel, walk around and explore some new city/country/part of town, or sit for hours enjoying afternoon tea...). Or not. And if the hanging out happens to occur in, say, a motu in Bora Bora, well, even better. Serendipity berries for myself on my big day. ;-)

28 October 2008

A View from a Room (a story in photos)

I was recently told that blogs shouldn't be all text (oops) or too long (oops) and should include photos (oops). (And probably should not be solely about death.) So, here are some photos I took from my window that seem appropriate right now.

Even in the stillest, whitest, coldest part of winter, when it feels like life will never return, it does eventually stop snowing.

And if we stop for a moment, we see it actually looks beautiful out.

The snow starts to melt.

We get a glimmer of what's to come.

The sun finally returns.

The river begins to thaw.

And one day, we wake up, and the snow is gone.

People come out of their caves, and the trees show signs of life again.

The crew teams start rowing on the river again.

And without any warning, summer arrives. Temperatures shoot up from 40F to 70F overnight, and people complain about how hot it is.

But everyone is outside, life is in full swing, and people slow down and smile more.

And then, just as we get used to summer, autumn sneaks up on us again. And the cycle begins all over again.

So, what have I learned from Peter's death? We've all heard that we should live each day as if it were our last, carpe diem, etc., and I've tried to be as fearless and as open to risk as possible. What I realize now is that I also have to take good care of my body, my only vessel that will allow me to embark on adventures, backpack to countries people haven't heard of, and connect to my loved ones. It means treating it well and appreciating how good it's been to me over the years, and hoping that if I feed it and exercise it and nurture it correctly, it won't just give out on me one day.

How boring. In our 20s, we abuse our bodies, staying out late, eating whatever we want, exercising only when it's a fun hike to Halfdome or the White Mountains (okay, maybe that's just me), but I now think I won't even have a chance to go after all of my dreams if my body won't cooperate. I start to envision my 30s being filled with meals of steamed, unsalted organic brussel sprouts and no ice cream for dessert. Waking up and running/walking for twenty minutes each morning.

Instead of being bummed by this, I imagine if I start being nice to my body now, while I'm young and healthy, maybe I'll live to be 100. That should give me plenty of time to make all of my current dreams come true (and plenty of time to come up with lots of new ones), and with all of that extra time, heck, I could help make other people's dreams come true, too. Serendipity berries for everyone.

26 October 2008

I witnessed the death of a young man today

I couldn't sleep last night and wrote this around 2:30 this morning.

One sad part of growing older is seeing more people die. We don't actually 'see' it happen, though, as we aren't usually present at the moment of death. We just hear the news afterwards, and everyone reacts to that differently. I was there this time, though, and for some reason, it compelled me to start a blog. Here is the news article, and here is what I saw.

This morning, I approached the men's boathouse for the women's race as an ambulance and a fire engine pulled up. There were already a police car and another ambulance there, so I tried to gather information from the many people milling around after the men's race. The buzz was that some guy had collapsed after he finished running-- which wouldn't be that out of the ordinary, except that he didn't get up and then stopped breathing. A student performed CPR on him, and once the emergency personnel arrived, the paramedics pounded on the poor kid's chest again and again and again, trying to beat his heart back to life. It hurt just to watch. Why did saving a life look so violent? The crowd was quiet and started to trickle away.

I didn't know if it would be more respectful to stay and hope or to not look and leave him in peace. I decided I wanted to be there, so that when he woke up, we could all clap for him and make him feel loved. I waited and waited for that happy-ending moment.

Peter Cai, class of 2010, was in and out, and then, with one last shake, as if freeing his soul from his physical body, he was gone. They lifted him onto a stretcher and pushed him into an ambulance. A friend went in the police car to go with him to the hospital. The women's race was canceled, and I saw a group huddling into a hug as we turned away. We paired off as we walked back along the river, looking at familiar sights that somehow seemed clearer, sharper, more dramatic.

As we tried to process what we had just seen, children and adults in matching copper-colored t-shirts started to stream by us. They were in good spirits, and their t-shirts told us they were doing a walk for literacy. As they walked towards the Dunkin' Donuts boxes stacked on a table, I wanted to cry out for them stop. Wait! A boy just died around the corner! But, no, I said nothing, and they went on with their walk and their lives.

So, what is a life? Why does it end so abruptly for some and drag on and on for others? Why does it take something as drastic as death for us to see things in perspective and appreciate the simple things (being alive, for example)? And why the heck was my response to start a blog? I created this blogger profile, and then, there was this white rectangle that I was supposed to fill with some catchy and concise name of my brand new blog. I said to the monitor, 'I don't know. I'm creatively paralyzed because I saw death today.' But then, I thought of one of my favorite words/concepts:

the serendipity berry, also known as miracle fruit.

1. the berrylike fruit of either of two African shrubs, Synsepalum dulcificum or Thaumatococcus daniellii, that, when chewed, causes sour substances to taste sweet.
2. the similar fruit of an African shrub, Dioscoreophyllum cumminsii. Also called miracle berry, miraculous fruit.
(Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Copyright © 1997, by Random House, Inc.)

I liked it because it was real yet magical, and it didn't fix everything, but it could make that bitter taste in your mouth seem a little sweeter. So, I figured if I could be like a serendipity berry in life and help sweeten someone's sorrows even a little, I will have succeeded as a human being.

My partner and I started by baking apple bread pudding and classic bread pudding tonight. We fed around thirty students in need of a little comfort/food-- and no, food certainly isn't the only way to make people feel better, but it was a nice excuse to have people gather. Conversation naturally flowed to and away from Peter as it started to rain outside, and I hope, in this small way, I was able to do some good. One serendipity berry a day is a good start.