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The first decision I remember ever making was to sit in the front row desk, closest to the teacher, in first grade. There I was in the first grade class picture — patent leather shoes and white ankle socks tucked neatly to the side; hands clasped on the wooden desktop; plaid dress with a full skirt spread across the hard seat; a proud, gap-toothed smile; my desk and the teacher’s nearly touching. It was a good decision that stuck; I’m still a front row sitter, fifty years later.
Decisions then were like leaves falling off trees, fluttering into a pile that made up our loosely formed lives. Who to invite for a sleepover. Which bike route to take on the way to a friend’s house. Who to pick for kickball. Whether to curl your hair over or under. What to ask Santa for Christmas.
This Christmas, my children and I will converge at their grandmother’s house in Galveston, Texas, where she has just made the most difficult decision of her life: whether to undergo treatment for the blood clot in her lung, a decision that would require she spend time in a skilled care facility, or forgo treatment, go home and sleep in her own bed under hospice care.
I could hear the distracted, flat quality in her voice over the telephone, from her hospital room the day she was making up her mind. My son was there with her and said she settled deep into herself that day, absorbing the weight of the options she had been given, considering what it all meant. The next morning, independently, she announced her decision. By afternoon, she was sitting in her living room rocker, wrapped up in all her warmest clothes, the thermostat set on 78. Her dog perked up and stopped pouting over his change in schedule. He had missed his fried egg three mornings in a row.
I have wondered over the last few days how brave I will be in the face of such a decision, a prospect that looms closer in proximity out here in the middle distance. I’m not a good decision maker, one of those who measures and sorts and lists all the pros and cons, then makes a calculated choice. I generally make decisions by default: a situation pops up that appeals and I instinctively choose it, then pile up all the reasons why it’s a good idea, to support my so-called decision.
Three and a half years ago, I decided to sell my house in Colorado Springs and spend some time in Texas with my mother and my sisters. One sister was ill and near the end of her life. The other had lost a son and was ravaged with grief. I was very near finishing two book projects and had no real work lined up. I was broke, and I was exhausted. In truth, I was running — away from the prospect of having to look for a job, away from the burden of a mortgage I couldn’t afford. It would be a nice change, I told myself and everyone else, a warm seaside climate, a different part of the country to explore, and I could help my mother care for my sister, something I really wanted to do.
So I put up the For Sale sign, and started packing and sorting. Just a few weeks later, my own son died in a violent flash, and I joined the sisterhood of grieving mothers. The decision I had made was all the comfort I had — I could leave this scene of devastation and face the open road. I could flee, and I did.
Three years later, I decided to return to Colorado Springs. My sister had passed; my mother was stable; my other sister and I had shared too many bottles of wine at the kitchen table; I had walked the dog and grown a garden and baked bread and been quiet and soothed my wrecked heart with deep inhalations of warm salt air. I was ready to return home to friends, and sharp, clear air, and other family, and work, and I fortified myself with all the reasons this was a good idea.
Now, all roads lead back to Galveston, at least for Christmas and a few weeks after. A decision has been made, a real and true one that took courage and clarity. We will all assemble on the front row, eager to learn, eyes wide open, as close as we can get to the teacher.
You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
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