Starting from Scratch

January, 2003

The last time our whole family visited my grandparents’ farmhouse near Chinook, Montana was the summer of 1991. We were all in the front room and grandpa was holding my sister’s six-month-old son, Jarek, whom he’d never seen before. Jarek seemed to understand that the man holding him was an important person in his life; he lay still in grandpa’s huge arms and stared up into his face, not looking away.

"You can tell he’s a bright kid," grandpa said. "Look at how he looks right back at you. You can just see it in his eyes."

As we talked about the things that families talk about when they don’t live close enough to see each other as often as they’d like, the afternoon sun warmed the room and I watched my little nephew’s eyelids grow heavy. Each time they closed, he shook off the sleep, whimpered, and opened his eyes wide again. I’d never watched a baby fall asleep before, but I realized at that time, that falling asleep could be a scary thing if you don’t understand what’s going on.

The world gets fuzzy and starts slipping away. Where is it going? Where is your own awareness going? You don’t know. It’s happened to you before, but you don’t remember all that well. Who’s to say that your mind and this world and all the people in it are going to come back? You hang on for dear life to consciousness. For all you know, it really is dear life you’re holding on to.

It’s hard to imagine how new everything is to a baby, and I don’t mean just grandpa’s face or the vacuum cleaner or strained carrots. For instance, my friend Cameron tells me bowel movements are very disturbing to his two month old son, Jesse. Who among us can say that we wouldn’t be seriously alarmed, to say the least, if right now for the first time in our lives we had a b.m.?

Even the most basic act of all, breathing, isn’t always automatic for babies. A pediatrician will tell you that many newborns stop breathing for several seconds every once in a while. Many physicians attribute a portion of sudden infant deaths to the baby’s simply forgetting to breathe.

Babies start from scratch every day, and so do grownups, to a lesser extent. How would life be if we couldn’t lie down at the end of the day, close our eyes and let everything slide away for a while. How would life be if we couldn’t wipe the mental blackboard clean every night?

That visit was the last time I saw grandpa. He died the following summer at the age of 88. The morning of his last day he he’d been square dancing with the ladies at the senior citizen center.

Everyone who knew grandpa understood that his time had come and we mourned his passing without the sting of regret. I’ve since often thought that I’ll consider myself lucky if I’m dancing on the day of my death. And when I think back to the last time I saw Grandpa, I picture him with Jarek in his arms; the newborn and the soon-to-die, great-grandfather and great-grandson looking into each others’ eyes across the chasm of two generations.

We cling to life on this planet, and that’s a good thing. The battle for survival is part of what makes life worth living, I suppose. But I can’t help but think that we’re a all babies when it comes to death. Like an infant at naptime, we’re not so sure we’re going to wake up afterward, so we hang on desperately for as long as we can.

My life is good, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it, however much I get to have. Even though at some point, I know I’ll be looking forward to starting over from scratch.

 © Kurt Opprecht, 2003

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