The longer we live, the more we experience joy and sadness, both packed together like sweet and sour flavors in an Asian recipe. It’s the pain-pleasure principle Sigmund Freud posited. Life is to be lived to the fullest with pleasure as the primary goal whereas pain is more immediate and difficult to accept.
Now that I’m approaching age 70, I find myself smack up against the reality of pain-pleasure more as I deal with my mortality and prodigiously recall the good and painful granular details of my life—the streets where I lived as a kid, days in school and childhood friendships, the screaming and fighting in my home, the phone numbers, addresses, and birthdays of the past, the first time I saw my husband, the sounds of jazz bands in which he played, raising our three kids and their respective journeys, work experiences, and the searing ache of the illnesses and deaths of loved ones–becoming too many to count on one hand.
Believe me, I feel lucky to be alive after grieving for two years for the spouse I lost four years ago. When it was the end of our long love story, life felt as small as a noose. Dealing with his death was like those moments when you’re in a busy room and suddenly everyone stops talking. Everything shuts down. I discovered instead that it was only the beginning of a new chapter. I grieved, came to my senses, got healthy, busy and back to the land of the living. In fact, most days I find that life is too short for doing everything, seeing everything, feeling everything I so want to do.
Living longer has many advantages–and downsides as well. It’s more time to spend with those we love, more time to see how other generations grow up, the changes of time, the developments of technology. At the same time, it’s aching backs, arthritic hands, heart palpitations, cancer, hearing loss, neurological diseases, and vision problems. Some people who meant the most to me are no longer here. It’s the pain of waking up every morning and for a split second, forgetting that parts of my life are gone. Then poof that no new memories will be made with those I’ve lost–my husband, a good friend, my mother- and father-in law, father, and most recently my mother at age 92. It’s definitely difficult to let go of these people who were such important parts of my life. Pain, sad memories, and unanswered questions can haunt you. You may even feel that you’ll never be the same–that you’ll never laugh or be whole again.
Yes, you will.
Recently, I had one of those punch-in-the-gut weeks when a few days after my mother was diagnosed with cancer, a dear friend died of a neurological disease. She had become a vacant shell. When her family called to tell me, I felt my breath catch and a tightness in my throat and chest. I sobbed. But this was a predictable loss due to a terminal illness, which sometimes allows you more time to prepare for the loss. In the end, her death proved to be merciful. Yet it has still provided a sobering reminder of how tenuous life can be. My friend won’t get to see her grandson grow up, have a Bar Mitzvah, go to college, get married, and have children. She also won’t see her daughter marry, take any more golf trips with her husband, cook a Passover dinner, share friendships, glasses of wine, or the good Scotch she so enjoyed.
And now as I sit at my computer, answering emails from my kids, planning to go to a lecture tonight with my new guy friend, considering a trip to New York City to hear my youngest son perform, thinking about what I’m going to wear to attend this latest funeral, and checking what time I have to pick my brother up at the airport for a meeting with my mother’s oncologist tomorrow, I am clearly experiencing that daily juxtaposition of pain and pleasure. One moment good; another very sad.
Because life is so fleeting, which is so easy to forget when everything seems to be going our way, I believe we need to express our happiness loudly and unforgettably. And for all the hurt, we need to feel that, too, grieve, cry, scream, retreat into ourselves–just do whatever works. But then we shed these old skins and carry on. Yes there’s pain but how lucky we are to experience the pleasures in still being alive.