I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Happily ever after

Yesterday's ripe tomatoes
I remember when I was little and learned that fairy tales always started with "Once upon a time" and ended with "...and they lived happily ever after." After suffering through wicked stepsisters and unjust servitude, Cinderella found her prince and... When did I learn that there is no such thing as a "happily ever after"? Life isn't like that at all. It doesn't stand still; anything living is dynamic, not static. Those beautiful tomatoes in the picture taken yesterday will be overripe in a few day's time.

My sister Fia was married (for the second time) a week ago, and I smiled at the pictures she posted on Facebook of their honeymoon. Her face is filled with happiness and her eyes are shining in a way I haven't seen in a long, long time. She's experiencing the bliss of beginning a new life. Of course she knows that they will have to return to the real world of work and strife sometime in the future, but not now.

The woman who lives downstairs from me is nine months pregnant. I saw her yesterday with her mother, and I was absolutely shocked at how big her stomach has become. It can't be more than a few days or a week now. When I was pregnant, I'm sure I was that big, too, but we wore smocks that made a tent over our tummies, and now women wear form-fitting clothing that doesn't hide anything.

The sight brought back memories from long ago of my own firstborn and the fear I had of going through the experience of childbirth. That was in the early sixties, and it was a different time then. There were no Lamaze classes, no internet that I could peruse to allay my fears. I was living in a small town in Puerto Rico, the dependent wife of an airman who was stationed at the nearby Air Force base. Nobody in the surrounding dwellings spoke any English, and my only companions, other than my husband, were other Air Force wives who lived nearby. We didn't have a car, so we made arrangements with a fellow airman who would drive us to the base hospital when the time came.

Inevitably, it began in the middle of the night, contractions that wouldn't be ignored. We rushed to the hospital and I was given over to a nurse who shaved me and gave me an enema. Do they still do those things? And then the doctor took over. I wasn't allowed to participate in the birth at all. They gave me a caudal anesthetic to deaden the entire pelvic area, strapped my legs into elevated stirrups, and tied my hands to the bed. I remember a mask with ether being forced onto my face and that was the last thing I knew until I came to. I had given birth to a son.

I wasn't allowed to see him until I had recovered from the anesthetic, which had filled me with lingering nausea. My memories are hazy, but I remember being in a ward with six other women when they brought him to me. I wanted to nurse him, but I wasn't helped in any way, as they expected I would bottle feed my baby. Breastfeeding was simply not encouraged back then. They even tried to give me pills to dry up the milk, but I didn't take them. I was the only one in the ward who breastfed her baby. Fortunately I was released from the hospital the next day, and the three of us went home to begin our new life. A memory I have of the two of us, Derald and me, leaning over the crib and looking at that beautiful new life, so tiny, so sweet. It lives on in my memory, in my heart.

But that was so very long ago. We didn't live happily ever after. Although we had a decent life, I thought I deserved a better one. I wrote about that time when I first began this blog, and I titled it "Trapped," because that was how I felt. Derald and Chris have now been gone a long time, but I am still here, still living on. There's no "happily ever after" in my story, but then again, I don't think it's even a real thing. I found this quote online by Joshua Loth Liebman:
“And they lived happily ever after” is one of the most tragic sentences in literature. It is tragic because it tells a falsehood about life and has led countless generations of people to expect something from human existence which is not possible on this fragile, imperfect earth. The “happy ending” obsession of Western culture is both a romantic illusion and a psychological handicap.
I was one of those people who thought that if I didn't have romance in my relationship with my husband, it must be because he wasn't the right one for me. I didn't know that love changes as time passes, that as it matures it changes. I pinned all my unhappiness on my poor husband; I now know that he was a good man, and that if I had been able to see that, we would probably have stayed married. Instead, we had two sons and were divorced before five years had passed.

Now I have the wisdom that comes from a lifetime of having been through all the ups and downs, the incredible highs and the devastating lows that anyone who has lived long enough goes through. Maybe I've had more than my share of loss, but nobody who lives for any length of time escapes the loss of loved ones. It's part of life. As I said at the beginning, life is dynamic, always moving and changing. That baby downstairs is getting ready to change the lives of its parents in ways they cannot even imagine. The drama continues. Life continues.

The seasons are only three months long, and the long days of summer are beginning to shorten. The first whiff of fall is in the air. My garden is getting ready to go dormant, and there are even a few leaves that are just beginning to change from the green of summer to the reds of fall. And then the trees will be bare again, and we'll enter into the dark days of winter. The cycle of the seasons, the cycle of life, will continue long after I'm gone from this planet. But for right now, I'm living the dash. (A reference to a life, written as 1942— .) There is no second number... yet. All I can say is that although I've already lived a very full life, I'm looking forward to what comes next.

My cyber friends (that means you) occupy a certain space in my heart, and as I think of all of YOU living your own dash, I wish you well. Let's go out and fill our day with love and light, what do you say?


Jackie said...

Jan...I don't know how long it takes you to write a post, but as I read it, I know that it flows smoothly into my mind and heart. It seems so effortless (your writing)...but I know from experience, that writing only comes easily to those with the gift. You, my friend have the gift. You put your deepest thoughts into words that stir emotions within the reader. Most people cannot do that. I find myself looking down toward the end of your blog post hoping that it is not ending. It always ends much too soon. Thank you for sharing your gift...and part of your dash with me.
I hug you and hope that the love for those who have come into your life and have since left this Earth will continue to bring you love and joy that is immeasurable.
Love to you,

Far Side of Fifty said...

The dash...mine is still a work in progress...but who knows for how long! Of course there are trials and tribulations if it were all easy sailing we would have nothing to be thankful for.
The story of birthing Chris is pretty scary...what archaic way of dealing with birth. I can only imagine how scared you were.
I believe in a happy ever after life in heaven...it will make the struggles and losses during the dash worthwhile:)

Judy said...

Jan, your blog this morning was beautiful. You really hit the nail on the head about our unrealistic ideas about life, love and marriage.

Rian said...

"living the dash..." I've never heard that expression. But I guess when it comes down to it, we're ALL living the dash (just some shorter than others).

You are a very good writer and I so enjoy your posts. But the words "happily ever after" don't have to mean "continuous happiness". It can mean what you want it to mean. I find that people's expectations and perceptions affect their mindset. I think that despite the heartaches, you have had a good life (and I think you think this also). It just may not have been what you *expected* or perceived "happily ever after" to mean.

And yes, let's go out and fill our day with love and light because today we are OK, today we are well, today we are living our "happily ever after".

Stella Jones said...

Ooh ouch, I remember those stirrups. I hated those. You're right about our lives changing as we get older. We are not the same people at 60 as we were at 25, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, it is difficult to accept that bad things happen to good people. I could write reams about how abusive certain people were towards me when I was little, but because this is a public blog and forum, I can't do it. It's best to focus on the good times instead of the bad and keep looking forward to more good times.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

You make an especially interesting point here: Our naive understanding of "happily ever after" can cause us to make unfortunate choices. We sometimes squander the good and the real because we don't realize that those might be the materials from which we could build a good and happy life. I don't know whether your life would have been better had you stayed with Derald, but I can think of small ways I might have made more of my own life, and big ways I think some friends might have, except for that fairy tale phrase. Thanks for a thought-provoking and very heartfelt post.

Gigi said...

Living the dash - I'd never thought of it like that.

I know you write these posts early in the morning and have to wonder how you can be so eloquent so early!

Red said...

I'll bet when you red what you've written about childbirth you can hardly believe it. Things have really changed today.
You have wound some interesting comparisons into this post to illustrate the pages and stages of life.

Sally Wessely said...

I loved this! I've heard that phrase of living the dash before. I do think we must live while we can and not be caught up "what might have been" and the "if only" Today, my husband and I didn't dash right out to live, but instead we took a long leisurely morning and turned it into a relaxing, wonderful afternoon without worrying about anything but enjoying the day. Later, in our walk with the dog around the block, we did have to dash home to get out of rain. We were amazed at how fast we could move when we had to.

Sally Wessely said...

By the way, your description of childbirth was more of what my mother experienced. Even though I had my first born in 1967, I had a much more modern experience than you had. By the time I had my last child in 1978, childbirth care was even more advanced than it had been ten year earlier.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Wow, you're a brilliant writer. At some point in your busy life, I hope you compile these Sunday posts, intersperse them with the other posts about climbs and hikes, and offer your wisdom to the rest of the world.

Glenda Beall said...

Happy is a relative term I think. I feel like I had a happy marriage for 45 years, but we had our ups and downs. I urge young people to stick it out after the early madness of romance fades, and not be too quick to quit. I see so many young single mothers struggling to make a home for children without a father.
This is a beautiful post, DJan. I admire you, having lost your children, for having what it takes to make a good life for yourself. Grief takes such a toll on us, it is hard to keep going.

amanda said...

This was the best thing I've read in a long time, DJan.

"A psychological handicap".. such truth to that. Happily ever after is not a real thing.
But happy right is what we make it.
I was very interested in reading about your experience with pregnancy & delivery. I've seen such a difference just in the time since our teenagers were born to now.. We didn't have cell phones then, and I wasn't sure how I'd reach my husband while he's working on remote job sites without phone lines. (Luckily the were born on a Saturday, when he was home.) But what a truly different experience it was for you.
Anyway, "living the dash" .. I like that.
Today our 94 year old neighbor surprised me by walking over with our kids, who'd gone to show her the newest lost tooth in the house. She amazes me. It's quite a hike across rough ground from her place to ours. That she is still living her dash with substance - I wish for that. Not for ninety-some years.. but to still be living with substance, whatever my years. A more realistic goal than happily ever after. :)

Rita said...

The stirrups came at the end in delivery for me. I went too fast to have a pelvic block or whatever they wanted to give me. I'd had braxton hicks (is that the right term?) for like four months--so I was primed and ready to go--45 minutes. The doctor just barely made it there in time.

Life is so remarkable. But it's not like the fairy tales...at least the endings. all the other crap in the fairy tales isn't far off--ROFL!

Living the dash!! ;)

Arkansas Patti said...

I always enjoy your posts and your easy flow of pertinent thoughts but today's post was extra special. You really are such a good writer that I never skip a paragraph of your posts.
Really could relate to your deft analysis of your first marriage and how that "happily ever after" ideal ruins so many of our expectations.

Linda Myers said...

This is a fabulous post. I'm so glad I'm one of your followers!

I like the idea of living the dash. As the days get shorter at this time of year, I want to retreat to someplace sunny. Maybe I can live the dash as the shadows lengthen in the Pacific Northwest.

Cynthia said...

You are so sweet and brave to share so much of your life with your blogging friends. Sharing what you have learned along the way is so helpful and meaningful. As I enter retirement, it feels like a big step into the last phase of my life, the "dash" I guess, and I thank you for the reminder to live it to the fullest. Still, I probably won't be sky diving, though!

Friko said...

I am nearing the latter part of the dash and I can confirm that there is no happy ever after. Like you, I have found contentment with a new relationship (relatively new) and what there is left of the dash is really quite pleasant.

This relentless pursuit of happiness is so futile, what is happiness, after all?

Let’s stick around for a bit longer and see what happens.

Mel said...

Jan, I loved reading this post and thinking about so many things. You're right, there is no happily ever after, not in the real world, but if we're lucky, we can live long, well and mostly happy, a full and meaningful dash.
I'm thankful I found your blog and can share in your wisdom and your positive attitude. I hope you have a great week.

Linda Reeder said...

I'm still catching up. Let's see, you wrote this Sunday morning, and then you went and jumped out of airplanes. Yes, you are still living well. It seems to me you are having happy endings - daily. That's what matters.
I ran an estate sale. Making my neighbor happy made me happy. This week so far I've enjoyed productive mornings and lazy afternoons, a perfect August pattern. I'm living day by day right now. While it's not my style in the long run, it's what I need right now.
I agree with Jackie, in the first comment. I love your Sunday morning blog - such beautiful writing. And childbirth was getting much better in the States by the time you had that awful experience with Chris's birth. Wow. Dark ages. By 1973 my first experience with childbirth was completely mother centered.

Dee said...

Dear DJan, for myself, I've struggled all my life with an awareness of existential loneliness. An awareness that has led me often to hold on to a place or a person or a time. And what I'm learning in these twilight years of my life--these years of the dash as you say--is to let go of all I held so tightly. That i've grasped with greedy hands. To let go and to turn myself to the possibility of newness and Oneness with past and present and future. That's where I am right now.

But as you say, life is not static. Where will I be in my thinking and believing and living at this time next year. I don't know but I hope at the deep center of my being where Oneness dwells that I will have experienced growth in the human spirit. That is enough and more than enough. Peace.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

I think that Buddy's birth changed everything in how I see things. The ugliness of the humans who request us to consider giving Buddy up because he was not born as a perfect specimen of a human,having an extra chromosome, just made us more determined to keep our precious baby. However, the happily ever after concept took on a whole new quest to prove we can be a family that will be okay. And we are but of course there have been many highs and lows!
We choose the label and how we live it.