By Karla M. Steffens-Moran
Early this morning, as I was finishing up the last of the breakfast dishes, my son Zak’s best friend Seamus came to the door, face flushed, unzipped coat wide open despite the morning frost, panting, and asked in a rush of breath if Zak could come out and see “this animal down the street. I think, it was just hit.” He spoke with a measured balance of fear and excitement in his voice. “I thought…well, I wanted to…maybe, well, it’s worth seeing,” he said. Just then Zak came down the stairs and after a brief exchange, he and his best friend walked out the door and up the street to bear witness.
Late last night my daughter Grace peeked her head around the door of the study with a “Mom, Jenna just called me; Kaiden’s Dad is…dead.” She sat down next to me. “They think it was a heart attack. Can you believe it?” she asked, as she stared out at nothing. I shook my head not quite understanding. How was it possible that someone so vibrant, so good-humored, so filled with life and love could be gone in a moment? “No,” I said. “I cannot; I can not believe it.” Just days before he’d been cheering at his son’s track meet.
Yesterday I looked at the doctor and shared my newly discovered family history at my annual well-woman check: “Breast Cancer,” I said, “My little sister. Here,” I added “on the left,” and touched my index finger near to my heart.
And tonight I’m thinking, to whom do you open your heart while you still have a chance? The heart that at any moment may just as easily burst in joy as in pain, in delight as in anguish. The same heart that beats one moment and the next explodes or simply stops. To whom do you share your truest feelings, the same way that they do on those television shows that we all like to live vicariously through rather than risk feeling it, sharing it, opening our oh-so-fragile hearts to others?
I would like to know where the writer is for my life, the one who will draw up the kooky best friend character, the leggy redhead or unconventional blonde girlfriend who will be there through thick or thin like those girls in Sex in the City? It’s so much harder in real life to dare to open oneself up, to force an answer to the question: how are you? Beyond a simple, “fine, and you?”
Because the truth is, I feel sometimes that I’m failing as much as succeeding—whether it be at mothering or teaching or directing or befriending or loving or cleaning or organizing or creating. And there are the days when I think: where are the writers? Where is the plot line that explains it all? And then I think, it’s the ending that ties it all up.
And so I go back to the only thing I know, the here and now—versus the end. I go back to the best friend who rushes excited through the door, or the daughter who peeks her head around the door of the study, or sometimes to the person who inspires me
to be open, be involved, be connected—like Kaiden’s dad, Ivan. I must let them in; I must open the door to what they want to show me.
Because real life is often times out there as much as it’s in here, and it’s short and I must go and see it, today, in this moment, not later. Because unlike the television shows that must go on, life will not. Sometimes life will surprise you and it will be over and nothing will be tied up, and you will be left wondering, why didn’t I?
“The funeral is Wednesday,” my daughter tells me. “The whole choir is going to be there, to sing.” I imagine the long line of cars snaking their way through the early spring greens of the cemetery, and I imagine the hands of loved ones as their fingertips gently trace the top of the casket, and I imagine the whispered good-byes and God-Speeds to this man--husband, father, son, brother, cousin, neighbor, friend, fellow farmer. He was too young to die, we’ll all agree, too young to go home to the earth he should be tilling. Those of us who knew him only in passing have only the slightest idea of who he was. And yet we grieve for him, and for his family; we ache for their loss, and they should know, how Ivan mattered to all of us--friends, neighbors, and yes, near-strangers.
His life, like a precious heirloom, shattered in a moment--and despite having no way to put it back together, to make it whole and right again, we try. We will come together--family, friends, colleagues, near strangers--and offer up our own single piece, like single sentences that mean nothing until they are strung together to tell the story of this man’s life.
In one piece, we see a man with a large and ready laugh, a ruddy complexion, with hands thick and rough—like my grandfather’s and father’s who were also farmers—always ready to help, a shock of thick dark hair; a passion to be present to cheer and support at the track meets and volleyball games, to serve family, friends, school, community, the land—to do the right thing, above all, obligated to be hard-working and honorable.
In another piece, we see a man kneel down in a field, take a scoop of rich, freshly tilled soil into the palm of his thick, calloused hand, look up into a cloudless sky, and thank God for all that he has in his life: his beautiful wife, his three wonderful children, the fine family, friends and neighbors he has always been able to count on—and yes, for the promise and bounty of the land.
And he makes a wish that his children, that everyone, can someday know this feeling he holds in his palm, in his heart, this kind of connection to something, someone, to know its promise. And then he stands, ready to plant, again.
“You gotta check this out,” says Seamus to Zak, as they head through the door and up the street. “It’s AMAZING!” And I know that he means to point out this animal that has just passed, the beauty of it, the tragedy of it, to witness, willingly.
And watching them walk through the door and away up the street, my heart wants to break because I know what is up ahead. I imagine that the farmer would smile and nod his approval. It’s all a part of it, he’d say. Don’t look away. Each moment matters; each piece is a part of the story.
I know this. Because that’s what my piece revealed to me--a whispered truth as simple, constant, and pressing as wind across an Iowa field: be present, bear witness. So tomorrow I will walk up the street and pay respect to the farmer who modeled in his too short but abundant life, to love life, to love and protect the land, to open our fragile hearts to others, to take it all in and then try our best to give back.
So, let’s do it…you and I…whatever it is we are most afraid of doing, of trying, of opening ourselves up to; let’s dare. While I have the chance, let me leave the dishes and go out and look at what is here, let my hand open and let loose of the to-do list. Here in the yard, here in the sun or the rain, let me look up into the sky, let me remember a time when stars could be diamonds and mud could be pie, when all that was needed for magic could be found here at the fingertips, here in the heart, here in the freshly tilled soil, rich with all of its possibility and promise. Let the planting begin.