In the car on the way home from church with Mary*, our conversation turned to poetry, as it often does. In Mary’s working life she was an English teacher, and even now she can recite snatches (and large sections) of poems she has loved throughout her life. Now living with dementia, I wasn’t sure if Mary would know the work of Mary Oliver, since she is most familiar with British, pre-war poetry. I started chatting away about Oliver’s work, mentioning a few of the lines and phrases I enjoy so much, quoting what is perhaps Oliver’s most famous question of all that finishes her poem ‘The Summer Day’,
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Without having meant Mary to answer, right away she responded, 'Oh dear, I’ve never thought about that question before, and here I am, my life almost over…’ She paused, then with a smile, apparently delighted by an idea that had occurred to her, she exclaimed, 'I expect I’d better feed the cat!’ and we both laughed.
In a way, that might seem funny, and a rather light way to answer what is certainly one of the most important questions that could ever be asked. In another way though, this is a beautiful every day example of the reality so well expressed by Annie Dillard that,
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.
And Mary loves her cat. She often mentions how thankful she is for the company of her cat, and how much she enjoys 'snugging up’ with the cat during the long winter days. Caring for her cat is a clear index of Mary’s continued wellbeing, and her ability to keep caring, even as the names of the days slip away, and memories go astray. After a pause, Mary added:
'It’s true you know. Life is precious. It doesn’t always feel precious, especially when it’s uneventful, but it’s precious all the same. I should really ask myself this question each morning.’
Her and me both.
(Reflection written in February 2019)