Oma was 95 years old. We were sitting in her large living/dining room in the two story The Hague apartment she had lived in since 1938, where both Mom and I were born in the room just upstairs. Not much had changed since our young family of four left to move into student housing in Delft.
We were sharing a nice cup of tea and I sat looking around the comfortably familiar room where so many meals and cups of tea had been shared over my lifetime. There was a large window next to the round table that overlooked the brick street, the canal and the school behind it. This was the window she leaned out of to greet us as we rang her doorbell. A small gas stove/fireplace kept the room warm, the ever-present kettle on top to restore some moisture to the air, and above the stove hung a portrait of my mom when she was about 11 with long braids. Books lined the walls, old furniture sat where it always sat, and her begonia climbed the wall around the window and up to the ceiling. Large glass doors gave access from the living room out to the narrow balcony where the downstairs neighbor’s green garden could be enjoyed without actually having to maintain it. This was the balcony from which she waved until we were out of sight after our visits.
As I glanced up at the dingy ceiling, I mused that maybe it was time to have the place painted. Oma shrugged. She said she had been noticing it needed painting since she was 70, but, she always figured, why bother? She would be dead soon. This was a typical thing for her to say. I grinned at her. Didn’t she think that after 25 years maybe it really was time to paint? “Why bother,” she grinned back, “when I’ll be dead soon?”
The ceiling stayed dingy for another 6 years. It’s not that she was waiting to die. Far from it. She was using the internet to research and post information about her causes. She e-mailed or called long-distance periodically and always asked relevant questions. She read current books and discussed them. She worked the system to get the help she needed to stay relatively independent at home. It’s just that she never expected to get so old.
I can relate to that. I was surprised to reach every birthday after my cancer diagnosis. Like Oma, I wasn’t waiting to die, but I also didn’t really expect to live. I always have this strange feeling that I’m living on borrowed time and am obliged to make the best use of every single second. In a way the pressure that creates that can tend to ruin the gift of the extra time.
I want to acknowledge some of the amazing and wonderful things I did get to experience thanks to the extra time, sort of a “checked-off” or reverse bucket list.
◦ My sons are my pride and joy. They were beautiful babies, fun kids, and grew into interesting adults whose company I treasure and whose adventures I enjoy being a part of. If ever there is a good reason for living, it’s to witness up close the amazing and sometimes surprising growth of the seeds you have planted.
◦ I got to witness the birth of a friend’s baby – a natural breech birth which even the assisting physicians had never seen in person. What a miracle!
◦ Even though it was gut-wrenching and sorrowful to lose my parents, I was able to be with them to assist them in their passing. Both died relatively peacefully at home with us taking care of them to the end, and with as much dignity as death will allow.
◦ I have the guts to try things that are scary, hard, or “just not done”. I had that anyway, but having faced death at a young age made me braver.
◦ Knowing what made me feel supported and cared for when i was going through my troubles made me better able to be caring and supportive to others going through theirs.
◦ Taking my family back to the Netherlands to see where I came from was a highlight. On that trip I established an adult relationship with my much younger cousins that is still strong today. Oma took us on a trip through thw canals in her 27-foot steel-hulled sailboat the first time we went back. She was 87 then, and had only been ignoring her ceiling for 27 years. Just being able to spend time with her and hear about my mother’s childhood as well as my own early years was a blessing. Driving through Belgium we got lost so many times that the boys started shouting from the back seat, “are we lost, AGAIN?!?”
◦ I learned to row when I turned 40. For my first race at the end of the first season I was terrified. How could I possibly row hard for nearly FIVE miles? Badly, it turned out, as conditions were terrible, with waves hitting me mid-back, and we had the dubious distinction of being the last to cross the finish line before the race was called for bad weather. In spite of the loss, it felt like a huge accomplishment just to have gotten to the finish line. 15 years later, because I loved the sport and kept at it, I was part of a crew that won a bronze medal at the Masters National Championships!
◦ I gained 100 pounds and lost them with the help of gastric bypass surgery. When I started rowing, I was 266 pounds, and was certain I wouldn’t fit my butt in that narrow boat. Wanting to get better at rowing, as well as be healthy and fit to be around for my growing boys, gave me the courage to have the surgery. I tried to lose the weight the traditional way, by eating healthy and exercising six hours a week (along with working full-time and being a wife and mom), but after a year I had only lost 8 pounds and was sidelined by a back injury. The surgery was a risk worth taking, and enabled me to live the healthy and fit lifestyle I live now.
◦ Participating in the Vogalonga, an enormous regatta in Venice, was fabulous! The powerboaters and water taxis are banned from the water from 9 am – 3 pm and all manner of vessels follow a 30 km route through Venice and the surrounding lagoon. There were kayakers, stand up paddlers, gondolas, every size rowing boat, viking longboat replicas, boats manned by men wearing monk’s robes, anything people-powered. There’s nothing like seeing a historic place from the water.
◦ My company sent me to work in California for a long term project, and I discovered Sausalito’s floating home community. I had a chance to live in one of those floating homes for 5 months while I was working there. I loved it! The docks were lined with flower pots filled with succulents that flourished in the foggy air. I would rush back from work, grab a glass of wine, and relax on the deck watching the sun set over Mount Tamalpais. On weekends I would hop in the kayak on the float tied to the home, and go visit the seals basking in the sun by the marina. There was so much to entertain me within biking distance that I often didn’t use the car on the weekends. I joined the Open Water Rowing Club and they took me out to see the Golden Gate Bridge. As soon as I saw that, I knew I had to row under it. I participated in the Open Water Regatta, following a course from Sausalito along the coast, under the Golden Gate Bridge, to Point Diablo on the other side, then back under the bridge and to Belvedere, then back to Sausalito. It was about 10 miles of rowing solo, with a dolphin escort part of the way. I nearly capsized in the rough water under the bridge, which has a current so strong that pulling with all your might will still move you only inches. I came in first and last in my event, being the only entry. It was the experience that counted, but I do like that medal.
Yesterday was Oma’s 104th birthday. On her 101st birthday I asked her how old she wanted to get, and she picked 108 so she could beat her doctor’s oldest patient so far. She didn’t make it to 102, but that’s all right. She had a long, full life and then just went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up.
Today Oma’s begonia is trying to climb around my kitchen window in spite of my pruning efforts. The round table that sat in her living room now sits in my kitchen, the kettle from the stove sits on the counter with water for the begonia, and Mom’s portrait now hangs on my wall.
I don’t know if I’m using my time wisely or right, and I don’t know how much of it I will have, but I do know that there is a whole lot more that I want to experience in life. It may just take me to 104 to get it all done.