When I was very young I sometimes wondered whether I would live to the end of the century. I was born in 1932, about a third of the way into the 20th century. As a kid the idea of being 68 (turn of the century) seemed too old to imagine. Here I am, 76, and the clock is still ticking.
But I often think about death while I brush my teeth. The 2 minutes of the electric toothbrush, punctuated every 30 seconds, makes me conscious of time.
In Alaska, where I spent this summer one is conscious of time because life passes kaleidoscopically fast. When my husband and I arrived in Manley Hot Springs AK the landscape was dark and dead. Sometimes a moose with a calf would suddenly dash across the road into the swampy gloom. Then rabbits appeared. There were dozens in our yard, with a lot of winter white fur on their feet and ears at first, then gradually changing to all brown. They drove Daisy, our toy poodle, to a frenzy of excitement. In a few weeks they all but disappeared. Next you see a robin; then robins were everywhere. Swallows, beautiful iridescent purple and green and white, arrive and set up house keeping under eaves and in bird houses.
The forests turned green almost over night. Pink wild roses appeared where ever you looked, lasted for a week or two, overlaping with the millions of blue bells, then masses of purple wild irises along the roads and all over the airstrip, and at the end of June, fireweed, with its hot pink spikes, began. Unlike most of the other flowering plants, the fireweed stays longer, and in the fall transforms to orange red foliage carpeting the hills where fires have been.
As soon as the spring frosts are over hungry mosquitoes are legion. They waited in swarms at doors, thickly covered window screens, and bit through clothes. One day yellow and black monarch butterflies appeared. They were everywhere, fluttering around the wild flowers. Little brown butterflies too. And big black dragonflies zig-zaged at all altitudes from the tops of the tallest spruces to a few inches off the ground. They looked like tiny space ships. Daisy chased the ones cruising a foot off the road. When I steped out on the porch 20 or 30 big black spiders scuttled into the cracks between the boards. An owl, a great gray owl, nested behind the Redingtons, and came over to hunt in our yard. It sat on a bird house and watched for small animals, probably shrews of which there are a lot.
There were a lot of bears this year. When bear hunting was in full swing I heard that 32 had been killed in this region. Joee Redington shot 2 at Cy’s cabin where they were trying to get in his front door.
Everything in Alaska does what it must do to survive fast, because there time is short. In mid summer, when it is never dark, the forests looked lush, especially since it rained a lot, with stabs of lightening and crashes of thunder. Now that we are back on our island in Puget Sound, the leaves will have fallen, everything will sleep or die, then it will snow, there will be white twilight and finally darkness will prevail.
But still, it is the brushing of teeth that makes me think of death. I heard Patrick, son of Earnest, Hemmingway interviewed on the radio on the occasion of his 80th birthday. When asked how he felt about being 80, he said, “Well, I might live to be 120, but the chances are that I will die sometime between 80 and 90.”
In 3 ½ years I will be 80. Although my mother lived to be 100, my chances are about like Patrick’s. How did this happen to me? Two minutes at a time.