June 18, 2008

Contemplating Mortality

I suspect I'm not alone in finding myself looking my own mortality more squarely in the face because of Tim Russert's untimely death. As the outpouring of emotion and tributes attest, he died doing something he absolutely loved. He clearly relished his work, making each moment he was on air count, but he also made sure there were plenty of moments for his private life.

How often have you heard someone say, "That's the way I want to go," when they hear about someone who was here one moment, and then, suddenly, is not in the world any more?

But is it really true that we want to be at our desks when the time comes? When all is said and done, do I want to be remembered for the work I do?

Don't get me wrong. I love my job. Having the opportunity to feel I am, in some small way, ensuring the vitality of the Judaism I love and also making this world a slightly better place, gives me tremendous satisfaction. It's what makes me tick and keeps me going.

But then I stop and think: have I been able to achieve the balance that Tim Russert so clearly did? And when I'm gone, what will those who remember me say about me?

We live on a corner, and the only place that had any regular sun when we moved in was the corner, outside our hedge. So for 19 summers I've worked at cultivating an English cottage garden, filled with perennials and dahlias. Last fall, however, we lost a third of a giant gum tree that shaded the lawn so now, for the first time in 20 years, I've been able to plant a vegetable garden.

Each morning, before I leave for the 8 a.m. train to Grand Central, I tend to my garden and pick the lettuce that we'll eat that evening. And the first thing I do after I change my clothes when I get home is check my garden. Are the peas in their pods ready to pick? Any tomato blossoms turning into small fruit? Do I need to thin the carrots? And look! Today I found four cucumbers forming.

Being out in my garden, the worries and frustrations of my day fade away. I can feel myself relaxing as my anger and stress evaporate. I remember other vegetable gardens I've had and a flood of memories return: trying every zucchini recipe I could find when our garden overflowed with the squash in Virginia; my daughter picking the corn we grew in Mississippi; canning the tomatoes from my garden in Colorado with a neighbor; my son climbing the fruit trees in our San Francisco garden and shaking out the loquats.

I think I'd rather be outside, cultivating my very small corner of this earth, watching the miracle of seeds turning into sprouts that grow into cucumbers, than just about anywhere else. If I'm going to go quickly, may it be here, and not in my office. My computer won't miss me. My garden will.

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