Four and a half weeks ago, we buried my father. A tall, sturdy man of 65, in apparent good health. He died unexpectedly, on a bicycle ride organised by a local club of which he was the chairman. About a mile from home, he gave a scream and fell over. One scream, and Dad is no longer just a phone call away.
It was an enormous shock. I had expected at least another twenty years with both of my parents. After all, life expectancy in Belgium is up to around 80, and my dad was never one to give up early.
Life expectancy is a deceptive number. It's not a warranty, nor a right. That 80 is an average. For every centenarian, one of us kicks the bucket in our early sixties, and you don't get to ask for a refund. Meanwhile our politicians discuss raising the retirement age to 67, or even to 70.
This past month, I've lived my life over and over again, questioning my choices, behaviour and most of all, my values and priorities. While mourning for my father, I've also grieved for missed opportunities and for the time and energy I have already wasted: on being impatient with imperfection, on worrying about worldly trivia and on incessant self-criticism.
I work a lot, and enjoy what I do. Yet it takes up a large chunk of my life, leaving precious little to divide between everyone and everything else I love: my husband, family, friends, 6.5 cats, writing, reading, travelling, pottering about with herbs, food and wine, not to mention my ongoing quest to understand what Life is all about.
Who am I? Why are we here? What's the true value of Man / Woman in this social, ecological network we call World? Will our spirits live on when we are no longer remembered? Does it matter? Why do I even care?
So many questions, so few answers - a downside of having said goodbye to one's childhood faith and the simple, clear-cut answers it provided. As a grown-up, I am responsible for my own answers, either to discover them, or to make some up as I go along.
Never before have I understood how deeply a parent's death cuts into one's heart. I am an independent woman and by no means a Daddy's girl. Up until a month ago, I wouldn't even have called myself a family person. I've only just begun to acknowledge my parents' impact on who I have become. But the influence is there, and it cannot be overestimated. We might radiate on different wavelengths, but our cores are solid and alike. My life would have been so different if it hadn't been for their presence and support, and I know many people aren't that lucky.
And then - a phone call, a cataclysm to disrupt our lives and shake up the status quo. In a split second, 'everyday life' turns into something spelled with capital letters. Suddenly, similarities shine more brightly and differences dissolve.
Our only certainty is change, and times seem to have changed once again. Yet underneath, what I fear most is that soon, life will go on, and that maybe, just maybe, this won't have changed me at all.
Photo 'circle of life' by Carmen Kong, available under a creative commons license. © 2006, Carmen Kong.