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Living the BIG LIFE in a 12′ x 12′ Room

King Huang

Heather King - published on 07/22/14

Big lives aren't measured by what you have or do, but by how vast are your mind and soul.

What is it with these people who go around saying, “My life is FABulous. I have a BIG LIFE.” As my friend Josh says: "What are you, a foreign dignitary? Are you a sheik?" 

My friend Lisa has a slightly different take on such folks: "You have a BIG LIFE? Well, get away from me, then, cause you’re in the way of my teeny, cramped life of struggle, loneliness, and pain!"

I’m thinking of my mother. Mom lived, for the last four years of her life, in a 12’ by 12’ room at an assisted living facility in Dover, New Hampshire, and even that was too big for her. Some people hoard; my mother divested. Mom was the opposite of a clutterer. Give her a present and ten minutes later she would have given it away, or donated it to Goodwill, or wrapped it neatly in about ten layers of used grocery bag paper, labeled, taped, and indexed it, and put it in the garbage. Weeks after my father died, she’d disposed of his belongings, sold the house in which all eight of us kids had grown up, and moved into a condo that would have made the cell of a cloistered nun look baroque. “Oh I don’t need any of that malarkey,” she’d say, waving off the offer of a pair of slippers to replace the ones she’d been wearing since the Reagan era, or “I have notecards” (a pile of scrap-paper from the backsides of church programs and bills, torn into uniform size against the edge of a wooden ruler leftover from when we were in grade school).

That was fifteen years ago. Seven years ago, she moved into assisted living and, as the Alzheimer’s progressed, she became more herself, not less. She’d already gotten rid of her piano and then she got rid of her books and then she kept losing the remote so then she got rid of her TV. I talked to the people at the nursing home the next week and, at her request, they were in her room removing “the wires”—which I feel sure she felt were “getting in the way.” I got the feeling she was beginning to eye the walls and floor, figuring out how she could lose them, too.

Yet when I talked to her, she still sounded upbeat and absorbed. She reported on the walk she took every day around the perimeter of the hospital next door. She was grateful, as she always had been, for the tiniest thing. “Well thank you so much for calling!” she’d say, as if I’d walked across the Sahara instead of punched a few numbers into a phone; or “You didn’t have to send all that!” (a birthday card).

Mom died September 25, 2012. Far away, she seems ever closer. As she moves toward the future, my own memory telescopes more and more toward the past. Back in New England for much of this summer, I keep hearing her voice that last year: "The sky is so BLUE today!" "Boy is it GREEN this spring!" "I’ve never SEEN the stars so bright!" She no longer remembered my name, or even that I was her daughter, but her essence—her wonder at nature, her thanks for creation—burned ever brighter.

Walking among the Queen Anne’s lace and loosestrife this past month, my own memory distills as well: to moments that seem both frozen in time and, already, to live forever. The time we walked through the woods behind the house when I was eight and she showed me the pink ladyslipper. The purple velvet dress she sewed for my baptismal day. The way, when all the other girls were wearing makeup, she told me: “Let your light shine through”….

Is time short or is it long? Is a life big or is it deep?

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As syllable from sound—

–Emily Dickinson

Heather Kingis a Catholic convert, sober alcoholic, and writer whose most recent book is STRIPPED: Cancer, Culture and The Cloud of Unknowing. She speaks nationwide and blogs at Heather King: Mystery, Smarts, Laughs. For more, see her new About page.

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