Objectively, neither have the kids. They’ve been helpful around the house and kind to each other, their friends and relatives, but they haven’t done anything much more than what it’s fair to expect of a ten- and thirteen-year-old.
We haven’t donated an organ or contributed hours to a charity. We haven’t sacrificed for the benefit of those in need. The most generous thing I can remember doing in the past few weeks is making it a habit to let people cut into traffic ahead of me when I’m on a busy road.
Our record of stewardship to the earth isn’t any more impressive. We recycle cardboard and plastic, but we haven’t given up our automobile. Truth be told, we don’t even compost, because I so despise the fruit flies that abound in the kitchens of all the composting households I know.We’ve done nothing that merits a week in Disney World.
And yet as I write this, we’re on a flight southbound to Orlando. Just because we can. Because money for airline tickets and theme park admission was sitting in our checking account. Because we think it’s fun to go on family vacations. Because we both have jobs at which we’ll still be welcomed back even if we leave for a week.
I had a lot of work to do before we left town earlier this week, but the hardest task was writing a friend’s obituary. She entered hospice care in mid-July, and her husband called me during a rainstorm last Sunday. “It seems now that our time left is in days, not weeks,” he told me. Silent on my end of the line, I noted his use of the plural first person. Really it was only one member of their family whose remaining time on earth was probably down to days rather than weeks or even years: he and his two daughters were in fine health. But from where he stood, the plural first person simply made sense: facing the loss of wife and mother, it may as well have been all of them whose time was down to days.
“I want to ask you a favor,” he went on.”I’m going to need an obituary. Would you be willing to write one?
Of course I would, I told him. I started writing, and twenty-four hours later, I received notice that my friend was gone.
The day before we left for vacation, I had a lot to do, as mothers always have before leaving for vacation. Laundry. Packing. Cleaning out the fridge. Bringing the dog to my parents’ house. Paying a few bills.
Plus completing my friend’s obituary, and sending it to the local newspaper. The time of her memorial service had been set; there was no need to wait any longer to finish it.
So I completed it, and her husband – in what is surely the most heartbreaking compliment I’ve ever received in my career as a writer – thanked me profusely for writing so well about his deceased wife.
Less than twelve hours later, we left for the airport.
We don’t deserve this vacation. Our friends don’t deserve their immeasurable grief. Books have been written and sermons delivered on why bad things happen to good people; en route to Florida, I muse over why good things – like this trip – happen to strictly mediocre people.
I don’t know. It is perhaps the abiding mystery of the universe, to my mind. In an interview with the 47-year-old writer and actor David Rakoff just a few months before his death from cancer, Terry Gross asked her subject if he ever asked “Why me” about the second bout of cancer he was then undergoing.
“No, I never ask ‘Why me,’” he answered. “Because the only answer to ‘Why me?’ is ‘Why not you?’”
Why them? Why not us? Why are we going to Florida while they’re preparing for a memorial service?
Like all kids, my two sometimes whine “it’s not fair.” I’ve heard a lot of adults answer that timeless plaint with “Life isn’t fair,” but that’s not what I tell my kids. To their occasional laments, I say, “You want things to be fair? Be prepared to give up an awful, awful lot.”
We don’t deserve this. They don’t deserve that. And I don’t have any answers as to why. Not for us, not for them, not for anyone.