Incomplete Life

In a box of my dad’s old stuff, I found a scrapbook of my grandma’s. It was labeled “High school graduation invites, pictures, and thank you notes.” I flipped through and found entries from all my older cousins, including ultra sweet handwritten thank you notes from each of them. Oh boy, I thought. Did I write out a thank you note? I had no memory of writing one. The next page was my older sister, her graduation invite, her senior picture, and another thank you note–thanking her grandparents for coming to her party, for their card, and a promise to put the included money to good use. There I was on the page following. My thank you note was probably the least thoughtful and sweet–written in a child’s scrawl–but maybe I’m being a harsh critic. Only then did I worry for my younger sister, that maybe she dropped the ball. The next page was blank. I realized immediately my grandmother died in ’94, of lung cancer, the year before my younger sister would graduate.

All four of my grandparents were smokers. A contrived need put on that generation. Few were spared. My grandfather on the other side, on my mother’s side, died in 1981, at the age of 60 of lung cancer. His death incited her to quit smoking. I always thought that was a sweet gesture, a show of respect for the grief my mom was going through, and a generous attempt to be around longer so that our little family of five wouldn’t have that to deal with that again, any time soon. Imagine that! Never once occurred to me that my living, sentient grandmother might have been worried about her health and desired to stave off death as long as possible for the joy of being alive. No, she quit smoking so she could spend more Sundays once a month serving us dishes of vanilla ice cream in her kitchen. What a sweet lady she was! What a selfish little twit I was! But I was only seven.

I’d like to think my grandma going smoke-free for the last fifteen years of her life maybe did stave off lung cancer for a while. Maybe my graduation picture and thank you note are in the back of that scrapbook because she made that effort after my grandpa died. Would it have been nice if she’d lived to complete that scrapbook with the entry of her youngest granddaughter? Yes. Would it matter? It matters to those of us who loved her. Does it matter, really, in the grand scheme of things? What does?

Finishing things feels good. We get what we call “a sense of completion,” but finishing is just the byproduct of the doing. When we enjoy having the completed result of a project we enjoyed doing we’re really enjoying the memory of doing the work, which brought us pleasure. Having things completed is just the record we keep that something was completed but along the way the record became overvalued.

I don’t think I had any idea my grandmother was keeping the scrapbook of her grandchildren progressing through life until I opened it the other day, twenty years after her death, but I know now that she must have kept us close in mind given the spacing of our respective graduations. She probably leafed through it occasionally and thought of us. She probably even enjoyed the coming day when she would add the final entry, a day that never came for her. It’s sad to imagine her missing the satisfaction of completing the final page of that scrapbook and returning it to whatever shelf she kept it on to gaze at and feel pleased and proud that her progeny were off in the world enjoying their turns at life, and we can focus in on that missing entry until it begins to feel tragic or we can accept the metaphor that life isn’t something you complete all nice and tidy. You leave it undone because it holds an inexhaustible amount of things to enjoy doing.

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