The jet hefts itself off the runway. I sit among masked strangers, complicit in our journey during this plague weekend. It has been more than a year since I have seen my sister, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. Now that I’m a member of the V for vaccinated club and have my card tucked in with my passport as proof. I feel safe and eager to fly to Boston where I’ll spend a long weekend with them in Williamstown, Mass., near Jiminy Peak ski resort where my young granddaughters will ski while my sister, daughter and I will enjoy a hot cup of coffee.
Thus begins a wonderful time of stories: a walk in the countryside under blue skies and a bright winter sun, a visit to the Clark museum to see paintings by artists like Monet, Sergeant and Turner, laughs and conversations in the living room with its wide windows turned to Mount Greylock and a fun celebration for my grandson for his special 16th birthday.
Stories. This weekend passed too quickly, as our ephemeral experiences do, especially in an unusual time like this plague when we are encased too often in our solitude, missing the taken for granted gatherings with family and friends. So true for adults and for students, who have not been able to be with their teachers, classmates, and activities.
Stories. As Marcus Aurelius said, “Limit time to the present, for the present and passing moment is all we have to live and lose.” My weekend exists, as this day, as all of our days exist then are gone to exist only in our memories, our stories. It is hard to imagine, hard to accept, but our lives are our stories, of the past, of those times that were once now, but are now what we and others tell of how we lived. My weekend, so vivid in that present, is now a small book of stories, and my life is those stories told by me and those who lived that time with me: my sister, my daughter, my son-in-law and my grandchildren.
Stories. When we die, we have an afterlife. For some it is a lovely place where they gather with their family and with all those who in some way have deserved to be there. For others, it may be a place of suffering because of their misdeeds on earth. For others, it may be a rebirth. For others, it may be nothing, non-existence.
But we all have an afterlife on this earth. An afterlife of our stories remembered by those who have known us for many years. Many live on in my mind: the stories of dad working two jobs to send me to college, of mom sending me off every morning to school, filled with breakfast and secure in her love. My Bakersfield College students, friends and colleagues during my many years here after I drove to Bakersfield from Detroit, not knowing what to expect when I came down Edison Highway in my own “Grapes of Wrath.”
My life lives on in them, especially in my daughter and my sister. And they will tell stories that I do know, will never know. He did this, he did that, can you believe it! That is my afterlife here on earth, that is our afterlife here on this earth.
It seems so odd to think of this, this moment so real will soon not exist. So odd to think of our lives living on in stories in the memories and minds of those who will still live in this time and space. We would like to know about all of these stories, write our autobiography, our memoir. And we may, but we do not know, cannot know of those stories told by others. Yet we live on: our lives, our stories.
Jack Hernandez is a retired director of the Norman Levan Center of the Humanities at Bakersfield College.