Lisa López Smith

Turning 37

Between the 360 days of sunshine per year and the weird birthmark I have on my arm, I convinced myself that I had cancer. It’s an easy leap for an over-thinking Enneagram 4. And, this weird pain around my shoulder? After I finished the chores, I was definitely going to Google symptoms for a pre-heart attack even though I was confident in my diagnosis. My mind kept whirling; a carousel that wouldn’t stop. I was dying. I was dying, just a few weeks short of my thirty-seventh birthday.

The evening tasks began, my mind still preoccupied with writing a will and feeling the ache that my sons would not remember me when they were old. I filled the feed buckets with a shovel, feet shuffling, and took them out to the sheep. I know each sheep by name, even the ones that will eventually end up on the BBQ. They ate with gusto as always, snuffling through the layers of alfalfa and rastrojo.

Of course, at 37, I would reach the age where I started to outlive my dad, a thought that had recently started circling like one of the enormous black zopilotes vulturing above the desert landscape.

I always stop to watch the sheep eat, both to look for symptoms of problems but also because it is always so calming and delightful to see their contentedness. They are indifferent to weather; both sun and rain have their place. Frida stopped to look at me a moment, unblinking, then snorting snot and alfalfa across my shorts. Soledad, particularly skittish, was startled by the dogs who scampered by, playful in their endless tussles. 

Probably, at 37 I was suddenly ten years old again and visiting the hospital; it was there that the scent of antiseptic, of overcooked food, of pus and blood and fear would become a combination that would cause me physical pain for years. I remember long hallways, an institutional maze with coloured lines on the floor, and pastel curtains dividing the hospital room; I remember the tubes and needles and IV lines. With every visit I’d be surprised by the yellow of my dad’s eyes; never realizing how he was fading, even as the voices of the grown-ups grew quieter when I was around.

Suddenly, on the cusp of 37, with my imminent cancer-heart attack, I wasn’t even going to outlive my father. My time was up too and my first gut-kicking thought was that my kids are too young and I can’t possibly die yet. My impending, imagined death felt too real and my mind spiraled out of control like a car going too fast on the curves of the mountainside, inventing the ways that I am going to fade away.

The breeze stirred.

The rainy season corresponds with my birth month, and I remembered the way the grass will grow back, lush and abundant, like it does every year and soon we wouldn’t have to mix feed for the sheep. The swallows and blackbirds spoke from the sky and trees. The air smelled of dryness, but also the promise of rain. My boys were laughing in the distance. I exhaled. The breeze, a delight.

This is all.

The rains here in central Mexico are wild and warm, and after months of desert dryness, the kids will gallop outside at the first drops, shrieking and singing: “¡Lluuuuviiiiiaaaaa!” My dad learned Spanish when he was young and vagabonding his way across Spain—the only one is his family to learn it, and it’s kind of beautiful and funny that his grandchildren speak it as their first language. I know if he could look into their light-coloured eyes, he’d see his own. Maybe he’d see himself also in the way they pour over storybooks, and craft structures out of boxes or pallets or Lego. The boys will stomp puddles and wave their arms, reaching up towards heaven as the drops fall.

I scattered the kitchen scraps for the hens and they immediately started chasing the hen that found the best gross item; chunks of rotting tomato are always a good reason to start a fight. Their wobbling gait while running and clackering never fail to amuse me and I was surprised to hear my own laugh while trying to reach under the massive spines of the huizache where some rogue hens like to plant their eggs.

I guess it is the dissatisfaction with life which is the waste. I forgot to give thanks for the breath I have today. I’m starting to see that too often it is easier to let my mind crash into the sorrow of the things that death will keep me from. It’s like I somehow prefer the chaos, the fear of premature death.

The clouds turn pink and gold as the sun reaches for the horizon. This is all.

Why do I spend my few precious years on the planet wishing I was different somehow? I had absorbed the idea that life is about what we do and how much money we can make doing it. So focused on doing, we are rarely reminded simply to be. It is the journey that counts.

I mixed the pig feed in a bucket, crumbling some dried tortillas on top, brining the whole thing in the whey from the goat cheese my husband made. The pigs were enthusiastic to see me, as always. The tips of their snouts snuffle in a way that practically feels like a mode of communication; they are speaking of delight, as pigs find pure pleasure just having food placed in front of them. 

This is all.

I went into the goat pasture. Blanca’s milk hit the bottom of the pail in regular pings until the sounds softened into gush and foam as it filled. I could feel the teat refill with milk, gentle and alive like breath under my fingers. She is steady and generous with her milk, with her kids, with her own bony body. This.

This is all.

Of course I am dying. We all are. However, the gift of today is beautiful, and I can decide at this moment, and in every moment, to be living rather than dying. And maybe, even if my kids do end up losing their mother too early, one day they’ll look into the grey-green eyes of their own daughters, and see someone enchanted by flowers, someone who can’t yet throw away the vaccination records of the cat who died, or who loves wandering through new cities, and they’ll realize that sometimes presence isn’t required for the story to go on.

Wendell Berry wrote, “To love anything good, at any cost, is a bargain.” There is much to love in this life around me. So much to love in remembering this legacy of joy that somehow trickles down to me, despite it all. The things that are small and tangible and insignificant are the same things that I am most thankful for anyhow: the kids laughing outside, the breeze across the laurel trees, the purple glow of the bougainvilleas on the vine, talking with my husband while we milk the goats, the bird chatter, the fresh goat cheese in the meal we all eat together. I’m almost 37 and today I am alive.

This is all.


Lisa López Smith lives and writes from her home in central Mexico. When not wrangling kids or rescue dogs or goats, she can probably be found riding her bike. Recent publications include: TJ Eckleburg Review, Sky Island Journal, Tilde, Mothers Always Write, Lacuna Magazine, and Coal Hill Review. Follow her on Twitter: @LisaLopezSmith