Someday I hope to become better at dancing with elephants. This is an important skill because they are everywhere: in the center of some family gatherings when that "friendly relative" acts out because of the disease of alcoholism and everyone looks the other way; in the parent lashing out in anger and breaking the heart of a young child because that is all he knows how to do; in the kitchen with a wife who stands silent because to acknowledge the elephant in the room is too painful. But I can no longer sit and stare at the elephant before me, and I want to not only acknowledge it, I want to accept its invitation to dance. For this elephant is present in every life at every waking moment, and none of us know of its existence until the sudden phone call, the hard words spoken at the doctor's office, the unknown now known and placed before us---
Death. When my mother and I climbed back into my van following her doctor's appointment to determine the cause of a large lump in her chest, the elephant was there waiting. Small talk tried to invade our space; false comfort tried to creep in.
The same voice that spoke in my head about finishing my dinner because of all the hungry children in China now accused me that to lose someone who had lived to 94 was somehow a blessing, as though there were some magical age when losing a loved one didn't matter. This was an elephant I did not want to acknowledge, but it was sitting in the back seat staring at me in the rear view mirror, silent and waiting. I took a deep breath and turned to my mom, who is hard of hearing. "Is there anything you did not understand about what the doctor said?"
Mom asked a few medical questions and I clarified as best I could. Then I swallowed and asked the question on the elephant's mind. "Are you afraid of anything?"
She was quiet for a moment. "I am not afraid of dying," she said, "but I don't want it to hurt." There it was. The elephant breathed.
"Marijuana is legal in Washington State," I answered, " and I make great brownies." I do not know what made me crack a joke, but I have been doing that with my mom for the forty six years since my dad was killed in a head on collision with a drunk driver. It is my job in the family…one that I have mastered.
Even though the family joke is that the shortest book in human history is called Four Hundred Years of German Humor, she laughs outloud. For years, mom, who is an immigrant from Germany, did not get jokes. But over the years, she has learned the nuances of American humor, and I am comforted by what passes for a belly laugh.
A memory crowds into the space in our conversation, one of when I was about eleven, and my mom came home from Germany with a stuffed white elephant as a gift. When I asked her from the back seat of the car why she brought a white elephant, my dad answered, "it is the damaged car in a used car lot that no one wants."
He meant it another way, but today I think he was right. No one wants this white elephant, and yet all of us live with it every second of our lives. We labor under the illusion that we have all the time we need to dream and plan, and yet there it is lurking in the corner of every experience we will ever enter.
And so, I decided today that I want to dance with the elephant. I want to embrace it fully and surrender to the lessons I am supposed to learn.
The "what if's" in this situation would fill a universe, and so I am learning to breathe in deeply when one bangs at my door, and I release it to the unknown future. I am learning to stare at the Light that illuminates only the step in front of me and plan no further ahead. I am learning to follow the lead of the Author and Perfector of my faith, the One who carefully plans each invisible step.
For in the certainty of death, there exists the uncertainty of the timing, and so I have to learn that the only moment I can live in is the one happening right now as I write these words. And in the process, I am learning to dance.