Monday, June 1, 2009

of Ants and Grasshoppers


I'm constantly amazed at how many people were not forced to endure their grandparents tell them this story repeatedly. So, briefly, the story goes:
Once upon a time there was an ant and a grasshopper.
The ant spent all day, everyday through the whole summer working to get ready for the winter. Stocking piling food and water and building a warm, comfy home so he and his little ant family would be safe and happy through the winter months.
The grasshopper, on the other hand, spent his summer having fun. The grasshopper sat by the river and played the fiddle. He danced and sang and generally partied down and whooped it up all summer long.
So when the snow started to fall, the ant holed himself up in his little ant house and spent all winter staying warm and catching up on his reading presumably. While the grasshopper was stuck outside in the cold with no home and no food and he froze to death because he wasn't prepared.
It's a parable-- a story designed to teach a lesson. My grandmother used to tell it to me over and over again because, I guess, she was really hoping I would grow up to be an ant.
(Hang on, let me put down my fiddle.)
Not so much, as it turns out. I'm all about the here and now. I live by a strong, "what if I get hit by a bus tomorrow?" ethic.

My mom has 4 brothers. One of them wanted to take early retirement. For the last 30 years I never saw him awake. He had a wife and 3 kids and a good job. He wanted to retire at 55 and spend the rest of his life with his wife, do some traveling, see some stuff they never had time to get around to, enjoy his kids, look forward to grand kids-- all that stuff we hope to do when we retire.

In order to do this, he had to put in X amount of hours with his company so he could retire early with his full pension and benefits. So, for most of my life, whenever the family got together, he was asleep. He worked double shifts. He worked 7 day weeks. He worked on holidays. When he wasn't working, he was taking classes to stay viable in his field so he didn't get replaced with younger workers.

From my vantage point, he either slept or worked through his children growing up, their soccer games and high school dances. He slept through family get togethers.

For many many years while I was growing up and into my adult life, whenever anyone scolded me about my grasshopper ways and tried to convince me that I ought to be more ambitious and spend more time at work, toiling for money for the future-- I thought of my uncle. Sleeping through the here and now in order to secure a future when the future is never secure.

He was the example that I lived by. I did not want to be that person. I did not want to miss out on where I was-- on where I am, now, at this moment-- I never wanted to trade my present, for a future that might not come.

What if he got hit by a bus?

And then it happened. The family received the grim news that that very same uncle had been diagnosed with cancer. Really nasty, awful, didn't-have-a-prayer cancer.

6 months before his 55th birthday.

6 months before his retirement.

He was given 6 months to live.

So all those years of playing Rip Van Winkle so that he could enjoy his retirement really paid off. As long as he lived to his 55th birthday-- at least his widow would get his benefits.

He did live another 9 months. So he got his early retirement and his widow has his benefits to keep her warm at night.

I can't say that he would have avoided the cancer had he not worked himself so hard-- cancer runs rampant in our gene pool, I don't think the lifestyle can entirely be blamed. But his family would have had more time with him. They would have more memories of the time they had together. They might have photo albums and scrapbooks overflowing with pictures to show the grandchildren who will never know him.

I don't know how I'm going to weather the winter of my own life. I certainly hope I live long enough to figure it out! But I know that I am here, right now and I try to appreciate that.
I truly hope that when I'm gone, at least people will remember me being awake.

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