Above the green and sturdy earth

Melissa O’Brien

 I turn 53 this weekend, the same age at which my mother’s mother died of breast cancer. I have heard of people dreading this kind of thing: arriving at the age at which a parent or grandparent died. I don’t feel that kind of fear or doom so much as a kind of sorrow, that I never knew my grandmother. We have so many ways to detect, diagnose and treat breast cancer now that my mother and sister and I have been able to be vigilant, something I would imagine my grandmother wasn’t.

She was something else, too, and I have a sneaky feeling it contributed to her cancer: heartbroken. Her husband had died at age 27. The inheritor of his father’s drinking establishment, my limited understanding is that he had too much fun; he drank himself into an early grave, thereby robbing his wife of a lifetime of marriage and his daughter, my mother, of a father.

It’s funny, the things we inherit in this life, the things that run down through the lines of a family: cancers and addictions, hair and eye color, stories and dreams.

My father’s parents died early, too, and so I was duly robbed of grandparents all the way around. Mom was an only child, so no aunts or uncles there, and Dad had two much-older step-siblings as his father’s first wife had died young.

We are a much larger family now than when I was young: Mom and Dad produced four of us and we, in turn, made nine more. We are growing exponentially, as families often do. Spreading out, too. We stretch now from Alaska to Oregon, California, Montana, Colorado and soon Tennessee. When my nephew graduates from college this weekend he will move to Nashville to begin his new life as a working guy. A kind of westward migration has left just me, my daughter and my parents here in the east. I suspect one day in the not-too-distant future we will find ourselves booted and spurred and ready to hit the trail, too.

My father has spent a great deal of time this past winter studying our family’s genealogy. The ghosts of all the men and women who came before now dance closer; there are names and places that anchor us, a family that has largely been unmoored by early deaths in recent generations. I have always wondered who we are; now I know a little more.

Turning 53, in light of those losses, those lives cut short, seems an extravagant gift. My parents are alive and healthy, my siblings all well, my children thriving. I have regular mammograms; hopefully no breast cancer cells will sneak below that radar; I stopped drinking seven years ago; it will not be alcoholism that undoes me in the end.

I have always been confused by folks who lament a birthday celebration. Knowing all too well, seeing death as I do every week in my hospice work, that it’s an honor to still be here, that any one of them would gladly trade places with me any hour of any day. I will be thinking of my grandmother this Saturday when the bell tolls 53 times. I came into the world at 7:53 a.m. in Grand Forks, North Dakota. I often wonder when, where and how I will go out. Until that time, I remain pleased to be up here, above the green and sturdy earth. Amen.