“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” -Hemmingway.
As is Police tradition when officers bury their own children, black and white motorcycles lined the edge of a Massachusetts funeral home parking lot. Inside, my childhood-next-door neighbor, Steven, lay in a casket. His wool varsity jacket hung on a hanger next to him, and an easel displayed enlarged photographs of Steven playing high school hockey.
Steven was in his mid 40’s when his third or fourth overdose on fentanyl proved fatal. I shook his dad’s hand and hugged his tearless mother as she confessed she was relieved “it was finally over.” We turned and looked at his photos and talked of being teenagers playing street hockey in the circle at the end of the cul-de-sac we called home. “Those were his best days. Those were my best days, too, “ she said.
Next door to Steven’s house, on a wooded hill above the cul-de-sac sits the starter home my parents bought in 1971. They still live there. While we sit and watch the birds feed on thistle and sunflower seeds, my mother remarks how much better she feels with a Fentanyl patch than she had felt with the other narcotic pain relievers her oncological team had prescribed. It’s been almost two years since her diagnosis of advanced pancreatic and liver cancer, and perhaps an unknown amount of time on her journey with dementia. As the birds feast, we talk about my little boy’s progress with potty training, how pretty the gold finches are with the sun hits the feeders, how her appetite was good today and she got some sleep last night. “Every day is my best day,” she wisely offers.
My Massachusetts hometown is a mostly-rural mix of cranberry farmers and Boston commuters. Steven and I attended the same public schools and played street hockey in the same circle with the same kids. We were both middle-children with police officer dads and para-professional moms. We were both bombarded with Nancy Reagan’s advice to “just say no,” and both played varsity sports for the same high school, where we both ostensibly learned the same scholastic athletic values of discipline, excellence and perseverance. I don’t pretend to know why our trajectories were so different when they started at the same point in space and time.
Were I to die, my wrestling coach might attend my funeral, but nobody would mention high school sports – or High school at all. The conversation would be about the present. I’m quite blessed with a family that understands the value of mindfulness. Sure, we cherish our heritage and we enjoy recalling happy memories sparked by old photos. And yes, of course we excitedly look forward to planned outings and family vacations. But my mom’s journey with cancer and dementia makes me extraordinarily thankful my family has always strived to mindfully live in the moment.
It is perhaps one of life’s greatest paradoxes: our ability to fully embrace and enjoy our future hinges on our ability to live in the present right now.
Learning to live in the moment is a skill to be honed over time. It’s not unlike reading literature. One who strictly reads periodicals will probably struggle if they pick up Moby Dick or War and Peace. And so it is with mindfulness. Sitting with my mom, enjoying conversations about that very moment maximizes my ability to delight in my relationship with her. Not because she is aging, forgets some details or because she has cancer. Not because we’re plotting big things that may or may not ever come to fruition a year or a decade from now. But because at this moment in the journey, there is nothing I’d rather be doing than sitting on her porch, watching birds and listening to the voice that sung me to sleep with the same songs I sing to my own child.
Life isn’t strictly a journey, is it? We’re not merely headed to a destination; we’re also already there.
We’re in this moment. Savor it.
Hi, I am an Aging 200 student at the Erickson School of Aging. Your blog post was very informative and I just so happened to agree with all your main points. In class, we have discussed a few aging-related concepts that correlate with the ideas in your blog post. One of these concepts is called conscious aging which is the struggle to establish new cognitive behavior and look at the world in new ways. This concept could tie into the idea of living more in the present and worrying less about the future. Practicing conscious aging could be someone taking a yoga class or even someone sitting with a family member appreciating the time they are spending together in that moment. It makes someone more aware of the now than the later, and helps them be more present and comfortable in the moment. Another concept that relates to this article is the cognitive theory of aging, which is about the way one perceives something. The same thing can be perceived negatively by one person, yet positively by another. I would say that there are two types of people; type one, who are always too stressed about what is to come to actually enjoy the present, and type two, who prepare for their future by focusing on the present. If someone looks on the brighter side of things, they are type 2. If they look on the negative side of things, they are type 1. The type of person someone is and the amount they are able to enjoy their life shows how much they follow this theory. I believe your attitude toward things is what ultimately makes or breaks them. The same thing can be taken two completely different ways, but it is up to you to decide which way based on how your perceive things. So, I know it is cliche to say, but always try to look at the brighter side of things.
Debbie Van Straten says
Very thoughtful young person.
Demi T says
Hello, I am a student at the Erickson School of Aging, and currently taking AGNG 200. We are learning about different theories of aging, specifically, conscious aging, which ties in with the idea of mindfulness and living in the moment. The theory suggests aging is a struggle to establish new cognitive structures, and new ways of looking at the world. As this is a process, by finding new ways to look at the world will help someone live in the moment. In addition, I really enjoyed your post about living in the moment and establishing mindfulness, especially how your mom has said that everyday is her best day. This motto should be applied to everyone’s lives. Specifically, I tend to get stressed out a lot about school, worrying heavily about graduation and all the tests and quizzes. However, my mindset changed after loosing a close family friend. She was only thirty-three years old and left behind a six year old and a newborn, after suffering an unexpected brain hemorrhage. Through this experience, I have learned that life is too short to worry about tomorrow. We need to appreciate what we have in the present moment, particularly our family and friends. In other words, taking a day at a time, because tomorrow is not guaranteed. As you and your mom liked to do, by simply sitting on the porch, listening to the birds eating and talking about your son, may seem like not much, but in reality its living in the moment. Although you might be able to better understand living in the moment than others due to your past experiences, specifically loosing a close friend and your mom having cancer, should be recognized as major stepping stones that have helped you understand mindfulness. Thank you for sharing your story, as it has further motivated me to continue working on living in the moment, taking more deep breaths, and appreciating the simple things in life.
One of the best pieces I’ve ever read. So relevant.
Reminds me of the book: The Precious Present. Lovely. Thanks.
Still the Lucky Fews says
Beautifully written article, Mike. I like your mother’s wise and gentle acceptance of her illness. It allows her to fully experience the present with you.
Larry Leverone says
Thanks. Simply thanks.
Beautifully said. Simple message. Heard it before. Need to be reminded how precious today is again and again because I forget to think about it. Thank you for the reminder.