Reflections on Mortality: Happy Birthday to Me

The Kitchen

May 19:

I sit in the kitchen this morning, thinking it may be my favorite room in the house. After years of indecision, we finally remodeled it, with Kent doing all the work.

While seated at the little round table at its center, I look at the lovingly crafted and designed cupboards — the lazy susan in the corner, the pullout-bin for trash and recyclables, the handy open-fronted drawer containing the paper towel roller with space behind it for an extra roll and dish towels. The under-sink drawers can be removed to access the plumbing (eliminating that dank, dark, hard-to-reach hole found in most kitchens). Also, under the counter beside the sink is a tall, narrow pull-out on which sits an antique ivory and red tin box from my grandfather’s house that holds dishwasher detergent, and above that, a nifty trio of towel racks on which to hang dish towels and washed recycled plastic bags. Above the drawers beneath the counter are wooden cutting boards that can be pulled out as needed. There are also vertical pull-out cupboards above and beside the refrigerator. Above the sink and in front of the south-facing window that looks out on the bird feeders and the spacious backyard is a light operated by pulling on a frosted glass knob at the end of a chain, so easy to reach just where it is needed.

May 29

I started writing the reflection on my kitchen ten days ago. It was the day after I’d had an echo-stress test on a treadmill and learned there is an abnormality in the walls of the left ventricle of my heart. Thus, I set about to contemplate my mortality. Yesterday, the day before my birthday, I underwent a nervously anticipated heart catheterization. I dreaded not only the procedure (although that was worrisome, too) but what it might reveal. I hoped for a small blockage that could easily be removed, enabling me to immediately run up hills like a twenty-year-old without gasping to catch my breath. But I feared that my arteries could be a complete mess and that I’d need a quadruple by-pass or worse. Neither of those scenarios unfolded. Instead, some problems will be treated with medicine, exercise, and diet, requiring some work on my part but no surgical intervention. I am grateful.

Today is my birthday. It is hard to believe I have completed seventy-seven years. I look back at childhood, adolescence, the college and young adult years, then marriage (later than most), two children, several careers, widowhood, adventures as a single person, and a second joyful, unexpected late-life marriage. Today would also have been my dear Ed’s 95th birthday and our 44th wedding anniversary.  He died just days after our 30th.

Last week I happened upon a Mary Oliver poem embedded in a beautiful ceramic bench on the grounds of the Harwood Art School in Albuquerque. It was not the first time I’d read this poem, but its closing lines, especially, spoke to me and seemed appropriate for this birthday morning when I am glad to have my body back. Thank you, Mary Oliver, and all the artists, holy ones, and mystics who help us live more fully.

“Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”

—Mary Oliver, Poem 133: The Summer Day

Author: Linnea Hendrickson

I am a retired librarian who walked my first camino to Santiago de Compostela in 2010, all alone from Le Puy-en-Velay to Finisterre. I've since returned to Spain, France, Portugal, or Italy at least every other year and continued to walk the many ways to Santiago.

15 thoughts on “Reflections on Mortality: Happy Birthday to Me”

  1. thank you and Mary for those words. Let us all begin to think about and make plans for the rest of our days so we don’t say at our passing, “I should have…”

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  2. What a lovely kitchen remodel……functional and attractive. Now to your birthday joy! It is always joyful to have another birthday and especially when you learn of good news about ones health. No better news than what you received prior to your special day. Enjoyed the read about your life accomplishments each with sad and happy memories: that’s life! Oliver is a favorite of mine also! Happy Day for sure, enjoy and continue to write your blog. Blessings are for so many things……..’let us count the ways’, the way things continue to unfold. Wanda

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  3. Dear, dear Linnea, A most happy birthday! I am so happy your heart is OK and fixable. One of my friends once said she thought it was good to “have a little something wrong with you” so that you took better care of yourself. That may well be true! I had a rather large and deep squamous cell removed from my forehead last week, and it was more traumatic than I anticipated, so I too was thinking about death. I will be 84 in July. But after a few scary days of it aching so, it feels better, and the stitches come out on Tuesday—all these skin cancers are from my childhood, but I am grateful that they are fixable. Your kitchen looks just wonderful—hurray to Kent! I will be spending two months away in Colorado—grandson’s June wedding; a road trip to the sand dunes in Michigan in July; and the Vail Dance Festival in August. I’ve not seen the family in two years, so it will be a treat! Stay safe and stay well. It’s OK to slow down as you age! Much love, Anne

    Sent from my iPad

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    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Anne, It will be wonderful for you to get away and see friends and family. I wish you were coming here, too. Remember how we had to cancel our opera plans last year? I love your friend’s comment about it being good to have something a little wrong with us, to take better care of ourselves, and also to be grateful for what we do have.

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  4. Thank you, Linnea… your writing brings tears to my eyes. Like so many of us, I contemplate my own mortality every day. Hoping that I don’t leave my beloved wife too soon, but when is it not “too soon”? Wanting every day to be as full and loving as possible, leaving aside the small stressors that some might dwell upon, trying to do my best with everything I do. It’s not about the legacy, it’s the daily small things that count. “I love you” is the most important thing I can say these days…

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  5. Linnea,

    Mortality and legacy have been on my mind a lot lately, too. Recently in The Christian Century magazine, I ran across this thought from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I’m trying to do better about getting down to writing in my routine, so I don’t get to the end of my life and realize I haven’t finished writing anything.

    Memoir class starts up again June 7, but I can’t rely on that alone to motivate me; it has to be more of an internal response to what drives me to write, and having that drive overcome my tendency to procrastinate. I did get a few pages revised last week of my memoir on the first years with Anne (we called her “Anita” back then — Spanish pronunciation!). But then I switched to composing the Caring Bridge entry.

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    1. Daniel, your writings and reflections have been so inspiring. As you can see, I hadn’t written a blog post since February! It is hard to be motivated and to find time. I love that Annie Dillard quote. We look forward to seeing you in NM very soon!

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  6. Linnea,

    Mortality and legacy have been on my mind a lot lately, too. In The Christian Century magazine, I ran across this thought from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I’m trying to do better about getting down to writing in my routine, so I don’t get to the end of my life and realize I haven’t finished writing anything.

    My memoir class starts up again June 7, but I can’t rely on that alone to motivate me; it has to be more of an internal response to what drives me to write, and having that drive overcome my tendency to procrastinate. Last week I did revise some pages of the memoir about the first years with Anne (we called her Anita back then — Spanish pronunciation, since we were in Nicaragua). Then set that aside to finish the Caring Bridge journal entry.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dear Linnea ~ Your kitchen sounds wonderful. —And Kent is definitely a wonderful carpenter! (I have two pull-out bread boards and one is often used for a quick stop for hot cookie sheets. I would hate to do without it!) I am glad your heart problem turned out to be manageable, although, personally, I find I have a hard time changing my evil ways. Your two very different ideas of what might happen were interesting, especially the one where you were renewed enough to run uphill on hikes! I recognize the Oliver poem from Anne’s letters and think you have done a lot in your life. I am sure you and Kent will find more exciting and unusual things to do. Happy 77th and enjoy the year!
    Love, Mara

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    1. Thank you, Mara! Yes, the pull-out bread boards are especially useful in a small kitchen, although I usually chop things on the small ones that hang on the side of the cupboards so I can just dump whatever I’m chopping into wherever it is going right from the board. I am so glad we keep in touch. I guess I’ll just fly up the hills in my dreams. As I get closer to 80, I should be happy to keep doing what I can. Yes, and keep working getting away from my computer.

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  8. Linnea, your writing is always interesting and inspiring. So glad that your medical news is manageable and not requiring surgery.
    I love your kitchen makeover; its beauty and functionality are certainly a huge plus over the cookie-cutter ones that are seen everywhere these days. (No more white and gray kitchens with shiny objects everywhere!)
    “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” (Allen Saunders) … Linnea, YOU m’dear, have proven that life is what happens every single day, and you have made the most of it. Yes, you make plans, but you don’t forget to live along the way.
    I wish you the happiest 77th birthday. Love you, sweet, lovely lady.

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  9. Thank you, Suzan, you are so sweet. I do love the bit-too-small cozy kitchen and its old-fashioned ambience. I hope one of these days you can join me at the little round table for a cup of tea or cold glass of water!

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