On Mortality and Living Fully

I think about mortality through the lens of the T.S. Eliot poem “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”. The sense of regret, tangible loneliness mixed in with a symphony of words that softens the blow of a hollow life struck me at seventeen when I first read it. Perhaps it was the notion that we believe we have infinite time to mold with what we will, but we don’t. We move in perishable vessels, and that fabled future is something you realize today (even if it isn’t in the fashion originally dreamed) or don’t.
I’m twenty-one. The first time I recognized mortality, I was six. My maternal grandmother passed away almost a year before that. But a year later came grandparent’s breakfast in the first grade. In the flurry of greying figures ushered by their tiny legacies, they marveled at our cubbies and poorly drawn art projects. It was then I knew no one would be that for me. It was then I knew that life ends and you develop relationships with memories.
I realized the fragility of my body in between twelve and thirteen. Purging was a daily ritual I practiced starting in the third grade. It hadn’t sunk its teeth into me until the onset of puberty. The miles my feet circled for track and twirls and turns landed in my legs took a toll on my hips. September of eighth grade—after one previous stint in the physical therapist’s office—I began to limp. My uneven gate did not deter me. No, I ran more. Harder and faster, more frequent became my work outs. My eating disorder matched the pace of my exercise. Then, at the end of September, I couldn’t walk. My hips gave way to the war I declared on myself so long ago. My body surrendered. I felt helpless and weak, confided to the ragdoll frame I created. The benefit of youth is the resiliency. My body bears almost no signs of the utter devastation I inflicted on it a decade ago. Physical resilience is a privilege of youth, and enables us to believe that our bodies can come back from anything. They can’t always revive themselves, though.
For this brief moment, I’m still one of those few lucky people who never witnessed someone die slowly. Yes, my father has precancerous skin cells all over his face, and I wince when he walks through the door after a dermatologist appointment with bandages wrapped like cotton flesh. My uncle, the man who raised my mother, died of AIDS amidst the peak of the AIDS the peak of the epidemic sweeping New York in the 1980s-1990s. My maternal grandfather died of lung cancer roughly 3-4 years before his son passed from AIDS. I have a little brother, Matthew. He is buried outside of Washington, DC, where we were living at the time. Early in the pregnancy, my mother was told Matthew had anancephaly, a failure to develop the cranium and in some extreme cases (my brother was one of them), closure to the spine as well. Babies affected by anacephaly are born blind, deaf, unable to feel pain; 50% do not survive the pregnancy; and 99% of babies affected by anancephaly do not survive the first ten days outside the womb. My mother made the choice not to abort Matthew. He did not survive the pregnancy, and on June 14, 1995 (sixteen days after my second birthday), he met this world in a stillborn body. The years that followed ushered in a steady stream of funerals and miscarried siblings. I mention this for temporality’s sake. Because mortality has always been a reality, but as an adult concept with emotional dimensions, I have been spared for now.
Living fully, for me, starts with my values. Living fully is disabusing myself of the “shoulds” or “when I get this/that then…”. It’s about assessing my needs and understanding each day as an organism. Some days are spent zip lining and giving speeches, others in bed with Netflix. One isn’t better than the other as long as the address my needs in that moment. It’s giving myself permission to exhale.
I’ve stopped visualizing my life, and starting sensing it, feeling it. A life that is ripe and full and vibrant means sucking sometimes.  It’s riddled with mistakes and apologies and mending in ways that make me stronger than before. It involves saying that I’m wrong, and hanging onto something when it feels right. Most importantly, I want a life of courage, something wholehearted. Bravery is first on my VIA assessment because I actively seek the uncomfortable, the uncharted, the places unfamiliar to definition or challenge. For me, that’s essential in a pursuit of my future. I’m completely an utterly disinterested in complacency. Nothing about surface satisfies me. I want depth and variety and understanding that these things can be draining as well. But always authentic, always courageous. As long as I have these things, I will be fed.
The larger piece of living wholly is understood in the purpose of my life is what I can give and do for others. Like I said in my first entry, connection is key.  Brene Brown describes this as a fear of being ordinary, and that in celebrating the privilege of even touching the ordinary, narcissism fades away. Texts asking how someone’s day is going; lending a hand; making a friend; being a mentor – seemingly ordinary things build a purpose and connection to the world around us. Everyday this semester, I have tried to reach out to one person, letting him or her know how deeply I care for them and how proud of this person I am.
For now, for this moment still in the carefree splendor and recklessness of my early twenties, I’m not Prufrock. Life still feels unmarked and uninhibited. Honoring my life today and living fully bears no weight from fabrication. It’s whole and honest. It’s saying things difficult to articulate and harder to deliver. It’s reintroducing yourself to yourself over and over again, sometimes being surprised and sometimes disappointed by the encounter. It’s abandoning conclusions of past generations to find your own questions and feeding curiosity. Living fully is understanding that the thrill of standing atop Arthur’s Seat two years ago with the quilt of Edinburgh sprawled before me does not compete with that one time this semester I skipped my 8 am because I needed to sleep and it felt so damn good. They don’t compete because each is necessary in this shambled patchwork of personhood I’m sewing. I’m not the best seamstress, but the thread is in my hands for as long as I have to hold it.

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