I know you, she comments, toddling along in tiny half steps, supported by her walker.
I squat down to get closer. “Listen up!” I remind myself, aware of how quickly she could pack her wisdom in just a few words.
“You’re a survivor,” she declares. “And you should tell everybody that a 97-year old woman told you that!”
I’m visiting my friend Anna Marie at her care center. This was to be the first of many short visits we would have now that she was settling in closer to me. We both knew that something would be coming for her someday, probably soon, given her age and fragility. This made each word from her mouth precious.
I could never have imagined then the pandemic cloud that would swing our way a couple months later. Or that both she and John, her life partner of more than seventy years, would each die merciful deaths in those years. Just now, four years later, I’m passing her words on to you, wondering what she meant when she called me a survivor and why it was so important that I pass it on.
Anna Marie was my best friend’s mom. She was the most talented listener I’ve ever known. Although I now know that she might have seen me as one of one of her special support projects, she never let on at the time. For several years I was often overwhelmed maneuvering through serious dysfunction in my family of origin. On any given Fourth of July or family birthday you might find the two of us huddled, chatting in a corner. I’d report the latest drama or tragedy, and she’d mostly just listen. Over time she became a kind of personal Yoda, with her tiny stature, her kind heart, and her pithy observations. So when she had something to say, I listened up. I knew that any words of wisdom that she offered would likely be chewable for a long time.
But. Me? A Survivor? I just couldn’t see it.
At my stage of life, everyone is a survivor of something. Being upright and alive after sixty is qualification enough. Most of my life I’ve been a juggler, determined to keep all balls afloat, somehow believing that I could also manage the lives of a several other people in my orbit. My plan was this: I would keep their lives from exploding and avoid getting the mess all over me. (I know. A great plan. And hopeless. For one thing, follow-through on way too many decisions is up to them, and they didn’t have my superior skills in project management.)
But. Me? A Survivor? As I visit the idea today, I still struggle to find it. Not me. I’m not a Survivor. I never had to fight or flee for my life. I’m not in the category of people who have truly earned the distinction of a Capital “S” for the generations their families have survived. (At least we finally have holidays like Juneteenth celebrating some of these Survivors.)
As far as survivors in my personal life, Survivorship honors go to a dear friend who’s still bringing home Pickleball trophies despite her Parkinson’s diagnosis of several years. Or one who just completed chemo treatments for her ovarian cancer. Or another who did all the caregiving for his beloved wife as she slowly died of a brain tumor.
However, I do have some experience with “small s” surviving and perhaps even thriving when others were stymied or stilled. I’ve lost nearly every member my first family from self-harm (either literally through suicide or passively as the consequences of drugs or alcohol took their toll.
I was lucky enough to experience serious depression as a teenager and young adult. Back then I swore I would do anything to avoid a recurrence. And I kept my promise to myself to make radical self-care a top priority. Since then, I’ve developed a personal anti-depression protocol that includes emotional and spiritual self-love. I somehow survived to adulthood and now to true elderhood. I guess this makes me a survivor, even if I haven’t earned a capital letter S.
I’ve learned to give myself some credit for simply showing up as I am and listening to my inner voice. This may seem like nothing, but it all adds up. Because what I’ve discovered is that taking time to relish tiny ordinary moments of life is a secret to a gradually happy survival. I’ve learned to celebrate seemingly minor accomplishments and playful human enterprises, like sand sculptures or sidewalk art.
And so this summer and fall I’m acknowledging my survival and the thriving life of a Survivor by checking out some Sidewalk Art festivals. The summer tradition is popular here in the Northwest. Many cities around the US host similar events.
Survival Sidewalk Chalk. Why not?
Survivors and survivors, unite!
Years before encampments,
just those two words scribbled
by a hobo in a stocking hat
dragging himself on a skateboard
having lost his wheelchair again,
moved by his mission,
to remind them what matters:
They called him Flipper before he was born
for his ceaseless movement.
And when he emerged they called him Philip.
Or Prince Philip of the Silver Spoon,
dressed him in the style of the President’s son,
cheered every season:
football, basketball, track
always a starter, an American hero
What happened next is not new
for golden boys
who begin with victory and hope.
Assurance just beyond the next step
until he landed on the wrong side,
in a pool of alcohol, drugs
and broken promises.
At last a fall from a slick roof
shrank his athletic limbs,
cut short all the rich opportunity of his birth.
He called himself Mo,
for his home state,
Last name Love,
for the home he never left.
— SgB 2023