It’s hard to convey the idyllic way I grew up, as close as we get to tribe among white genetic mutts in California. The back to land movement of the 1970’s brought families to to the San Geronimo valley–nestled between Fairfax and Point Reyes in West Marin. My dad built our house on a creek and I grew up catching crawdads and accepting that cats get eaten by coyotes.
My dad is in a men’s group, and my mom a women’s group, both made up of neighbors, and those same neighbors spend every Easter together, have a cookie party every christmas, and a group family camping trip in the summer, for over forty years.
For reasons I can’t fully explain I stopped attending these gatherings. There was the Easter my infant daughter cried nonstop for three hours in traffic, then the pandemic, then attempts at creating a local tribe to replicate the one I grew up with.
All to say it was six years since I’d seen the chosen family who raised me. I’d heard about Sue’s stroke, and Stephanie’s dementia. I’d seen my parent’s aging, those moments of noticing my dad pretending to hear the conversation, or my mom declaring she’s not a person who goes for walks anymore.
But it’s wild to fast forward six years and see everyone’s aging all at once: the hairy ears, gnarled hands and pink saggy skin, the slow and difficult journey up three steps. And to know they’re seeing that in me too, the gray streaks, perimenopause pudge, mottled crepey hands and neck. It’s a vulnerable thing to witness someone taking in your body’s decline.
Historically we’ve held Easter in Roy’s Redwoods, a majestic grove of 500 year old trees, with burned out forts for hiding eggs, in the midst of a meadow, our gathering announced with rainbow streamers, the potluck brunch laid across a giant log. This year the meadow was declared too muddy, so we had it at Ernie’s house. I was sad for my kids to not get the full experience, but figured they would next year. Yet as the day proceeded it dawned on me, mud or no mud, multiple people couldn’t make the 100 yard walk to the meadow, let alone schlep all the stuff out and in. The last Easter at Roy’s Redwoods is in the past, and I didn’t know it was my last when it was happening.
How many lasts are like that, slipping by unnoticed? I’ll soon pack up our shelf of picture books, saving a few and letting the rest go. When did this phase of reading picture books end? When was the last night, little blond heads nestled in each of my nooks, talking softly about hedgehogs in sweater vests drinking tea. And did I take it in? Take a picture in my body of the feeling, to take out and turn over in my mind for when they’re far away, a memory to save and review when I’m bed bound and dying.
I’ve become devout at relishing lasts. Recently I sat in the last golden light with my 14 year old son, surrounded by mustard flowers, on top of a hill we climbed, just the two of us, which is rare. I left his dad when he was less than two, I’ve literally missed half his life, and when he was six my daughter’s maw of needs arrived and the shining star of her has absorbed so much of me since.
We were on this hill in Santa Barbara because I know I don’t have that much time left with him before I lose him to friends and finding his way in the world. I’m aware how many times I’ve told him no, I don’t want to watch South Park or Tik Tok videos, no I’m too tired to wrestle. We have this moment and he’s gone. He’s already in flight away from me. I’m lucky we even rarely snuggle.
So I knew that golden hill moment was special, and I think he did too. We took goofy selfies and had a pricker war, then the sun was gone and it was over. The sun reliably sets and yet it gets me every time. When the shadows fall and temperature drops, the Deep Alone sadness seeps into me.
I remember the last time I made love with a partner I thought I’d grow old with, when we both knew it was over. Unlike all the rote sex, after you’ve explored all the positions and kinks and found the overlap and just do that; when there’s laundry to fold and spider webs on the ceiling and you just want to get off and release stress because there’s so much work to get back to.
We made it a ritual: we took the sheepskin to the fire, allowed ourselves to take it in. We honored the arc of it, from falling so hard I became physically love sick when he temporarily moved away, to the flaw-seeking goggles one wears to muster the ire required to be the executioner of love. In the light and warmth of the fire we held on to it all, the decades we’d no longer be sharing, the knowing that our bodies would grow apart. We held on tightly, pulled each other in. And then we let it go.
So many lasts slip by unknown. When was the last time I was in the backcountry with my dad or went for a walk with my mom?
What I want to say is: grief is a corrective emotion. When you let yourself feel it, when you fully grieve what’s forever lost, you can revel in what’s left. Recently I feel like I’ve gone over a waterfall with aging. With perimenopause a lot seemed to happen all at once, like the ugly duckling blossoming into a swan with adolescence, but in reverse. Lots of days I feel like a saggy baggy elephant, my feet hurt, and my energy flags. I stare up at the cliff from which I descended, knowing there’s no way I’m going back, I’m on a different stretch of river now, and the river only flows one way.
But if take it in, grieve it fully and let it go, I can take the blinders off and see there are more waterfalls to come. The waterfall where I can’t go in the backcountry anymore, or hear what people are saying, or even walk 100 yards to a meadow. The waterfall of cascading memorials, where my friends and family go over their final waterfalls, and then me (assumptions of living to be an old lady here).
So I’m going to enjoy the fuck out of this stretch of river.
The sun sets quickly and the river only flows one way. Take it in, revel, savor, devour it, feel the sun on your skin. Someday it will all be gone.