I was in Atlantic City, New Jersey, at my aunt’s 95th birthday party. Her name was Pricilla, but everyone called her Aunt Gussie. She had outlived all of her friends and contemporaries and was the matriarch and Griot (oral historian) of our family.
She was the one who passed down to us not just our own history but what it was like growing up in a racially divided America, living as a black woman, in the South and in Philadelphia during the early 20th century.
Someone asked, “Gussie, are you having fun?”
She said, “I’m just fine, but I won’t be here this time next year.”
I thought that was kind of morbid! Later, after she blew out the number 95 candle on her cake, I asked, “Hey, Aunt Gussie, how about some words of wisdom?”
“Well, this has been a marvelous party,” she said, “but I’m not going to be here this time next year.”
I gave her a loving look and assured her. “Yes you are, you’re not going to die, and we won’t let you.”
“Die! Who said anything about dying? This time next year I’m going to have a party in New York City!”
For a major part of my life, especially in my 20s and 30s, my optimism and pessimism had been driven by the thought—this time next year. It was why I did things and why I didn’t. I knew in my mind that by this time next year, no matter what was actually happening, I would either be dead or rich. There was no in-between. It was why I got in and out of relationships, in and out of jobs, and in and out of trouble. Sometimes it was positive. I made impulsive moves that took me on adventures and places I would never have gone, and I took chances that taught me things I would never have learned.
It was also how I dealt with pain. I knew that no matter how much something hurt, this time next year I would feel different, if not better. However, more often than not, I would find myself a year later broke and still alive with a whole lot of apologizing to do—with a trail of regrets and people I either hurt or disappointed, never having lived up to my potential, and occasionally on the run.
Almost everyday, I’m horrified when I read of young people killing each other, robbing each other, and going to jail for long stretches of time. They have no regard for their life or anyone else’s. They are living for the now and believe that this time next year they’ll either be on top or gone—so what does it matter?
Some people believe in life after death and that they’ll get their reward in the next life. Isn’t that what also motivates suicide bombers? The catch is you have to die to see if it’s true. A lot of people both young and old live in the reverse—they want their rewards now, on Earth, and are willing to give up their life or yours to get paid today.
When I was young, I was terrified by two things—polio and the atomic bomb. Today’s youth have to worry about terrorism, war, cancer, AIDS, crack, drive-bys and a host of other things. Even the birds pose a threat to our existence! It’s no wonder many people are fatalistic. We as a society are also constantly looking for the instant fix and get-rich-quick proposition. Instant breakfast, instant coffee, fast food, instant tan, liposuction (why wait to lose weight?), instant mega super lotto millionaires.
The movies, literature, and TV shows are full of rags-to-riches stories. There are reality shows such as “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” and “American Idol.” It’s as if we were all living in some contemporary vision of The Count of Monte Cristo. In this Alexander Dumas story the count breaks out of prison, discovers a fabulous treasure and proceeds to knock off anyone that wronged him in the past. Many people believe that with one stroke of good fortune or roll of the dice this time next year they’ll have it made. They’ll have grabbed hold of the American Dream!
It would be nice if I could say that some great love, profound experience or moral realization changed my ways and made me believe I would be around next year, but actually it was traffic tickets. Every year I would get dozens of tickets and throw them away. Shucks, I thought! As soon as my saxophone recording of “Hey Joe” hit the airwaves I’d make plenty of cash to take care of all my debts!
My indifference also contributed to my phone, gas and electricity being frequently turned off, so parking tickets were the least thing on my list—until it came time to renew my driver’s license.
Standing at the DMV counter, contemplating forking over the hard-earned cash I had worked and schemed for, for the third year in a row, I had a choice: lose my license and go to jail or pay for studio recording time. As I slowly gave the DMV all the money I had, it dawned on me—it’s always been about the little things—not just getting rich or dying while trying. The little things had always been holding me back and kicking my butt for years.
I realized that everyday it was the little things that could make or break me and that life was too short to wait a year! It’s not the bills you pay, it’s the one you don’t that gets you in trouble. It’s not about the big thing you dream of that never happened, but the little things you do that no one knows about.
There are many people who are not intimidated by either jail or death; they’re focused on chasing the American Dream. If they would believe that they’ll be here five years, ten years, even 20 years from now and learn how to appreciate the little things, maybe they’d make it to next year.
Aunt Gussie never had her 96th birthday party in New York City; she died six months later, still an eternal optimist. Her glass was never half empty but always half full. Now that I’ve gotten older, I never say “this time next year.” But I must admit that every now and than, I find myself thinking, this time next month!!