As my mid-March birthday approaches each year, two of my brothers like to whip out a twenty-five-foot metal tape measure used by our dad in his shop, which he equipped with a hundred tape measures. He’d say, “they were on sale at Marden’s. Someone in our extended family might need them.”
The tape measure appears. My brothers extend it out on the floor. “An inch equals a year of your life. You were born at zero. Let’s open it to the number of our predicted life expectancy.”
We each guess our own life length. As they walk the tape out, we wonder, “Do we stretch it to the mid-80s, the age that Dad’s family members die? Dad did, his parents did, his brother did, his aunts and uncles did. Or do we go to 100ish, the age Mom’s mom, mom’s aunt and mom’s grandfather died?”
The older of the two brothers says, “I used to pull it to 80. When I turned 70, I decided that wasn’t enough time for me.”
Older than both of them, I suggest, ”let’s go to 90.”
We place one end down. One brother lands his work boot on zero. The other brother walks with the clunky end, laying inch after inch until… until… until… I step my L.L. Bean boot on 90. Having anchored both ends, we now tower above the long strip and stare down at it.
In the brother’s office where we stand, pictures of Dad hang on the wall. I see the other brother’s hands, like Dad’s sturdy fingers, though he has Mom’s thin body. We watch the tape as if expecting it to talk. At the same time, we chitchat, no doubt because we know that this tape does talk to us and we don’t want to hear what it has to say. We reach our fingers to touch at the inch that denotes our current age. As I put mine on 72, the younger brother asks, “how’s your sore shoulder?”
I say, “An x-ray showed an extra bone in that shoulder.”
The tall brother says, “you’ve always been an overachiever.”
We chuckle, good at wit, maybe not so good facing reality. The shorter one says, “I’m missing a bone in my shoulder. Maybe you have the one I don’t.”
We laugh. Humor will delay the message of the tape.
The smiles stop as we take in the numbers. I say, “The balance looks different than it did, say, twenty years ago, in 2000. See the left, from birth to 72? Long. Now look between 72 and 90. Short.”
We banter. “If you want more, how would you have to live to add an extra foot to your expected length of time?”
More giggles, “To add twelve years? In 2000, would we have cared about piling on a decade or more?”
I say, “What about not only adding years to our life, but adding life to our years? What if your life has felt dull, monochromatic? How could you add color? What if your life has been the size of a tiny box, how could you open its bigger treasure chest?”
We continue, “If you don’t like the person you see in the mirror, how can you grow, what can you change?”
The tape measure might motivate you to answer poet Mary Oliver’s question, “Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” You might gain a sense of what you want to do, how you want to live and who you want to be in your last few inches.