Stone’s ashes arrived yesterday via UPS. It seems they need an adult, 21 years or older, to sign for them, and since we were both teaching, the delivery attempt was a failure. So, at eight o’clock at night we went to the ass-end of Van Nuys to stand in line behind a guy complaining he didn’t get his television from QVC to retrieve our dog’s remains. Plain, brown box with a weight of four pounds. A ninety-pound dog reduced to four pounds of ashes.
The house is empty. Here in Los Angeles, the highs are hovering in the eighty degree range with clear, blue skies. It feels like April or May, but it is still the dead of winter. Most nights we sit in front of the television eating our dinner and watching the Winter Olympics.
I have discovered that I have distracted myself from some very difficult times with the Winter Olympics over the years.
In 1994, we had a large earthquake that nearly took down our apartment building, and did in fact close the school where we were teaching for a while. I remember watching the games through aftershocks, listening to the walls heave and crack, while the skiers raced downhill and the figure skaters landed triple Lutz jumps and twirled away in camel spins. The games were in Lillehammer, Norway that year.
Salt Lake City hosted the games in 2002. This came right after my wife’s grandfather passed away in a nursing home and America was still recovering from 9-11. Her grandfather, Miguel, an incredible mechanic who could fix almost anything, tried to teach me how to work on an engine when times were better. I once tightened a bolt on an engine so securely that it took him two days with a hacksaw to cut it off. I was terror with a wrench. There we were on the couch, watching the luge and mourning him.
My mother passed on January 2, 2006. The games that winter were in Turin, Italy. I vaguely remember swirling forms, flames, and figures in mostly white flying down mountains in a faraway country famous for its Burial Shroud of Christ. I do not think I prayed much.
And now it is 2010 in Vancouver. Why did they pick an area with so little snow? Vancouver is a city of rain it seems. Again, we have the stories of the skier with the brother suffering from cerebral palsy, the snowboarder who went to Africa with skateboards, and for a dash of eccentricity, the figure skater who gets death threats for having fur-trimmed costumes. Tragedy, victory, stunning losses and evenings in the glowing half-light of the den. It must be winter again.
Today I gave my students a journal topic to write based on a John Milton poem called, “On His Blindness.” Here is the poem:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
I asked my students to write about their most valuable possession, and what they would do if they lost it. The possession could be an object, a person, or something more abstract like a memory. I got some great writing from them, especially the seniors who wrote about friendship, family memories, photographs. Other popular subjects were free speech and freedom, baby books, and specific family members like grandparents, brothers and sisters.
Living is about losing things, sometimes piece by piece, taken from us by that decider of mortality: time. Our only recourse is to hold on, cling to the memories, the moments we shared. Religion may comfort us, friends and loved ones may help heal the pain, but in the end, we must simply live on without.
Sometimes, all our best efforts, our love and concern, our desire to hang on to what we care about the most, all boil down to a four-pound box of ashes in a dirty parking lot on a warm winter’s night. We all, as the broadcasters remind us each night on the Olympic telecast, must face our destiny in our search for what is right and true, flying down the hill, the slippery slope of our dreams.