There is something almost mystical about the tenacity and the fragility of life.
I have been at the bedside of both of my parents as they have died; I have witnessed both qualities. The distinctive experience of each death is forever engraved into my mind and my heart--Mom's death a quiet cessation of a declining life, Dad's death a reluctant struggle for the body to survive in spite of the brain's devastation. Each haunts me in different ways, and the memory of each still evokes a poignant sense of loss and loneliness.
I see that fragility in the moment when their bodies could no longer sustain life--at the point where the systems had failed to the point that continued function was impossible. That wonderful machinery had reached its ultimate disrepair, and there was that precise point where each was there, and then each was gone.
I see that tenacity, though, in the struggles they went through. Mom's death from emphysema was a battle whose outcome was determined on the day the disease began to take its toll, but that didn't stop her from clinging to life as long as possible. She strove, she adjusted, the compensated so that she could enjoy life for as long as possible. She fought until there was nothing left to fight with, and then she had to leave us.
Dad's tenacity deceived us at first; he struggled to adjust and compensate to such a degree that it was days before we knew how truly massive the stroke had been, and what toll it had taken. He knew, but didn't say; instead, he tried to go on with what faculties were left, and did so for almost two days before the escalating impact of the stroke became more evident. From there, he clung to life for two more weeks, drawing on a strength that seemed physically impossible for his frail, weakened body.
Today I saw a woman burdened with a malady of which I knew nothing--but I could see its weight on her. She relied on a walker; each shuffling step was obviously painful nevertheless, each breath labored. Yet she smiled, and she laughed with her family, and in her eyes was a genuine joy that made it clear that her tenacity was winning out. Faced with limits that made her earlier lifestyle impossible, she had compensated and adjusted and found new ways to live.
Beside our back deck is a tulip poplar we have named Stumpy. The tree was broken in the tornadoes of 2001; rather than have it cut down entirely, we asked the trimmers to cut it some twenty feet off the ground, creating a sparsely limbed stump. That was seven years ago this month; since then, Stumpy has reached skyward with new limbs, finding renewed life in the face of damage that the arborist told us would certainly kill the tree. Now it stretches an additional twenty feet in to the air with numerous limbs, some of which are thicker than my thigh already. It is heavily leafed, and it shades our deck. A simple tree reminds me again of the tenacity that defines life. The stump just twenty feet away, a reminder of the tree that was felled by the same storm, reminds me of its fragility.
In each of us are both qualities; life is defined by the struggle for one to win out over the other. The mix of the two makes our days so precious, but the same mix is the source of our regrets.