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  • Lijing Cobb

To live

I sit down next to a woman to get the blue gel polish off of my nails. I’d selected the color because I wanted to be expressive, but after 18 long days I couldn’t wait to get it off, because I got tired of wearing blue and neutral colors only.


“That’s a pretty color.” The woman next to me compliments. I thank her, and sit down to watch the manicurist work his magic.


A while later the woman’s manicurist asks if the woman is all right. She looks tired, and I hear her reply, “Oh, I lost my son 2 months ago. I don’t sleep much.”


I look over and offer my sincere condolences. “Thank you,” she says, and then adds, “then a week later my brother passed away. A week after that my sister died.”


What do you say to that?


I have no words, so I look back to the technician who’s diligently filing away at the blue. When I have composed myself a bit I turn my face to her again and say, “If you are not sleeping much, try Yoga Nidra.” Then I explain to her what it is, how it might help, and how she can find it. She thanks me, and I turn my eyes back to my nails.


Sporadically I continue to offer a bit of conversation here and there. Perhaps a stranger’s words with kind intentions might give her a bit of ease. Her technician has been filing her nails for a long time, a beautiful pink, then applying a gorgeous pinkish glitter. Her eye shadow matches her new nail polish. Behind the eye shadow are red, tired eyes.

When I am done she is still seated, so I say goodbye and take care.


At night before sleep, I count the years I might still have left in this life, and a strange sensation runs through my body. I realize that I am freaking out. The years just don’t seem enough. And it’s particularly hard to think that one day my children are going to pass from this life as well.

When I was about my youngest daughter’s age, I went with my youngest uncle to the countryside to meet his future bride. The future aunt-in-law was extremely beautiful, a great match for my handsome uncle. I gave my hearty approval (my uncle brought me so I could help him make a decision), and because the trip back home that night was not feasible, we stayed for the night. My uncle and I ended up in the same bed, and with his feet by my head he fell asleep while I stayed wide awake. What if he died at that moment? I was frightened by the thought, because I was at a strange place surrounded by people I don’t know, and my uncle was my only connection back to the familiar world. So I elbowed the sleeping man to make sure that he’s still alive. The thought that he could drop dead would not leave my head, so I kept talking to him, and asked him to promise me that he wouldn’t die on me. After a long struggle and perhaps literally dozens of reassurances from the poor drowsy man that he would continue to breathe just for me, I finally succumbed to fatigue and sleep.


The memory of that first night when I came face to face with mortality stayed with me.


The woman at the nail salon lost her son, a truck driver, to a deer related accident. Blunt trauma to the chest from the steering wheel, instant death. Lost her brother to Covid. Lost her sister to a heart attack.


Life is so fragile, isn’t it. Diseases, famine, depression, stress, accidents, war… lives are cut short many different ways every day. Yet as one life is lost, another is gained. From 1960 to 2020, the world’s population grew from 3 billion to 7.7 billion. Clearly, fragile is not the right word to describe life.


While the problem of my blue nail polish paled against the 3 lives lost in that nail salon, having that woman sitting quietly next to me, giving me compliment on a color that was getting on my nerves, reaching out to stay present in her current life, and not shying away from the world that is still turning, is courage. For her to choose pink on her nails, and pretty glitter for her eyelids, even when she cannot sleep at night, is her way of supporting the life that is in her, waiting to be lived out. There’s nothing fragile about that, the desire to hold onto hope and beauty, to connect with others no matter how tenuous and fleeting that connection might be.


We are doing all right as a species. Life is strong. We are resilient.


Now, are we happy?

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