My Facebook feed flooded last week with stories about Jonathan Crombie, the actor who played Gilbert Blythe in the Anne of Green Gables movies. It seems like every woman in my generation confessed to having had a crush on him. Gretchen Kuykendall Engel put it well when she wrote, “There is a bit of Gilbert in every hero I’ve written.”
Coming on the heels of having read Nadine Brandes’s book A Time to Die, the obituaries and tributes got me thinking about how much, or little, I’ve made of my life and what, if anything, I ought to do about it.
Crombie’s death troubled me for days, and not only because those films are among my favorites. But also because at 48, he was the same age as me.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been sent into bouts of introspection regarding my own mortality. Nor is it the most shocking. Just the most recent.
The first was when I was in my twenties. My first husband and I owned a bookshop in San Diego that specialized in speculative fiction and comics. A few months before we opened our store, when we were still in the planning stages, we attended the American Booksellers Association convention. There we met Carol Kalish, who was the Direct Sales Manager for Marvel Comics. Now we were not a big enough operation to be her customers. We would be going through a distributor. But she chatted with us and wished us well and gave us her card—and we didn’t have any to give in return because we hadn’t even had business cards printed yet.
A year later, as proud but struggling shopkeepers, we returned to the conference—with business cards, even. We went to a party sponsored by Marvel, and Carol spotted us. “Rob, Kristen, good to see you. Did you guys open your store?”
I was floored. Of course we remembered her. We had her card, and we only met one Marvel sales rep.
But she met thousands of bookstore owners. And she remembered.
A few years later, long after the shop went out of business, Carol died of a brain aneurysm. She was 36.
I was still in my mid-twenties, and I just could not conceive of a person so kind and vibrant and young suddenly not being in the world anymore. I think to some degree I still can’t quite wrap my mind around that.
The most shocking incident, though, came the day my dad called and asked whether I was alone. I assured him my husband was home and asked why it mattered.
“Because I have some bad news, and it’s not what you think.”
Of course the obvious bad news would have been my grandmother’s passing. But no. My cousin Lisa had died of a pulmonary embolism. She, too, was 36.
Lisa and I were born the same year, but she was born in January and I in November, so when we were growing up, as I saw it, she was a year older than me, until I had my birthday, and then we were the same age for two months, and then she was a year older again. So the following year, when I turned 37, I was both very grateful and still perplexed. Why did my son get to keep his mom while Lisa’s daughters lost theirs?
I have seen every year since as a gift. I no longer have any patience for people who try to hide their age or lie about it as if there’s something shameful about growing older. Yes, there are some parts of growing older that stink, like loosing your mobility and your vision or what all else. But life is a gift, and I am grateful for it.
My friend Sandee includes this bit of wisdom in the signature block of her e-mails: Life Is Not a Practice Round. This is true, and it behooves us to make the best of it. Because we never know when we’ll be called home.