• Austen Hayes

Dose #28: The Vitality Of Generations, Nourished By City Lights

"The generations of living things pass in a short time, and like runners, hand on the torch of life."

~ Lucretius


I awake at 3 am on this cold January morning, peaceful, serene, realizing where I am and why I'm here...in this bed, in this building, high on the 15th floor. Hours earlier a skilled surgeon removed a tiny gland from my body...a butterfly-shaped organ known for its ability to control so much of what and who we are, but, known too, for its capacity to wreak its own kind of havoc, causing the heart to race, heating every cell, accelerating loss of muscle and bone, changing emotion and shifting perception in an instant, no matter the realities. This tiny regulator turned thief, robbed me of the emotional and physiological balance I'd known to be me.


In constant flight, this wild butterfly, a relentless whirlwind, a million tiny strings in constant motion, spilling waterfalls of energy out over every inch of skin, quieted slightly with medication, meditation, and hour-long walks - my companion day and night for the past ten years. Now it was gone. The serenity was familiar. My breath even. Delicate. Natural. As if for this time I'd been away, then moved back into my body.


I stand up, out of the warm bed, drawn to the living frame surrounding the lights of New York, ablaze for the city that never sleeps. More serenity. Maybe reassurance. I'm weakened, but life continues. Under this middle-of-the-night sky I make out the outline of the 59th Street bridge. I was reminded of my mother's brother, "Uncle Jack", one of the first to cross that bridge, wheeled across in a pram, marking its official opening in 1909. It was a tale told and celebrated by my grandmother many times, as if her infant son had achieved something remarkable in his first months of life.


To the right, three blocks South, another outline takes shape - the building I'd lived in for more than two decades before I moved out of the city 11 years earlier. The building where my son died. The building I never want to see, painfully visible, forever wrapped in darkness no amount of light will make clear.


Looking away, I look down. I see the walkway hugging the East River. I know it well. How thrilled I was in earlier years to find this almost private place for daily runs, away from fumes, and horns and crowds. It was a special place of joy where I would outpace the lumbering old McAllister tugboats with their bright red and yellow striped bellies perched atop long, black bodies bobbing against the river's lapping waters. Toy boats in a bath. In the early 1900s, as the story goes, my then-young, vivacious grandmother was pursued by the founder of the company, making me wonder as a child, what if Mr. McAllister had been my grandfather? Would I be rich? Would I be able to ride the ferry anytime I wanted?


In this dark night, memories come to life, lights illuminating my mind with thoughts of generations, lights once guiding young, fast-paced New York footsteps powered by dreams. At this moment - bathed in white, crimson, blue, green and yellow - the hospital, the city, the now quiet streets, weaving stories and wonderings together in my mind.


At 16 my grandmother was welcomed by these lights, called to this island, this America brimming with mystery and promise. Electricity still new, the wonder of possibilities must have been dizzying. She would talk of time spent in Central Park, its winding pathways and lampposts standing guard, moving into action at the first sign of darkness, lighting the way for visitors from around the world.


I would follow in my grandmother's footsteps on the reservoir's circling path, and I would picture her there...what, as a young woman would she have worn? What were her imaginings, her plans for the day? And, isn't it likely as we felt those paths underfoot, 75 years apart, our concerns were much the same - family, work, health, money. Thinking this as I ran, I would resolve to not take worries too seriously, knowing one day they'll be forgotten, replaced thousands of times over in the minds of generations to come.


Staring through the large window I thought of her daughter, Anne, my mother. She grew up under these lights. As dusk fell over the avenues and streets, they were signals telling her it was time for an eight, or nine, or ten-year-old girl to go inside after roller skating hour after hour up and down the steep hills of the Upper East Side of town.


I have a clear memory of those lights reflected in the rearview mirror of my car as I drove North on Park Avenue at the age of 19 - the Chrysler building clothed in its robe of changing colours, flanked by thousands of lighted windows announcing New York's tireless energy, where into the night minds and ideas were in action, where opportunities and intrigue and puzzles I so desperately wanted to explore and experience were waiting.


I thought how years had changed us all. My grandmother, once flirtatious and witty, went from the vibrant beauty of youth, to the woman I remember being treated for cancer in this same hospital. Nearing death, she looked into the eyes of the nurse and said, "You know...I was once as beautiful as you." Not ego, but soul...moving on.


And, my always beautiful mother, the girl who loved flying around the city on 8 wheels, grew small as she neared 100. No less in love with life, her gentle spirit began to flicker, then went out, nothing in its place to match her radiance.


Here I stand. Not down on the running path below, but high above, looking out a hospital window. Not exactly sick, but in need of repair. Grandmother, daughter, granddaughter - eager, enthusiastic, in love with life. At this moment I knew I was in their footsteps once again, this time joining in the part of life that follows the bright shiny beginnings. As it should be. I'm only grateful. This calm is a gift. But, I see the light differently. No longer beckoning, now comforting.


Beginnings filled with optimism and innocence, energies fueled by fairy tales of princes to come, books to read, challenges to meet, stories to hear, outfits to wear - as with everything under lights, perhaps made more colourful and delicious than they are.


But, we need them. We need the lights to inspire, to soothe, to help us find our way as we put one foot in front of the other in this glorious journey of life. We each have our turn. To follow someone's light. To be someone's light. To take and use to the best of our ability, to never waste, to let us 'see' what is beautiful and right and good.


I return to my bed. For now, glad to be here. Tomorrow I'll go home...still more to be made of my turn.


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