There is such finality in death. It is the time when you review the life of another, trying to make sense of their death by justifying their life. We gather together as mourners, reflecting on the many ways we were impacted because that individual has lived. Family finds ways to gather together, when for years everything else got in the way. Tears are shed as the realization hits that we are never again going to have the opportunity to pick up a phone, we are never again going to be able to drop by, ask for advice, laugh with them, cry with them, share with them the mundane ups and downs of life. But is life ever truly mundane? Or is it the daily ebb and flow of life that makes life what it is, and it is up to us to see the preciousness in that?
Death is a time when we reflect upon our own lives, as we review the quality of theirs. Did they live their lives well? Are we living our lives any better? Did their life make a difference? Is ours? Was their life a good one? Was their death a comfortable one? Will they be missed? Will we?
We got the call early on Tuesday morning. After a day spent complaining of feeling cold and a bit short of breath, my mother-in-law, Alice, said goodnight to her family, was escorted to her apartment by a favorite grandson, spent some time in conversation with him as was her nightly custom, and sometime between then and morning, lay down upon her bed and closed her eyes for the very last time. And then her life became the responsibility of those who loved her.
My husband loved his mother, and spoke with her every couple of weeks. But visits to her southern home were few and far between. My husband loves his brothers, but phone calls and visits were even less. But suddenly, after believing themselves to be all grown up with lives of their own, my husband and his brothers became once again like little children, already missing the mother they had thought they had outgrown. And like little children, they instinctively came together in companionship and comfort, trying, in vain, to make sense of what is unexplainable, by gathering together, by remembering together, by intuitively coming closer to comfort one another in their grief.
And each one grieved differently. For some, grief was filled with sorrow over the past. For others it was the fear of realizing they were truly on their own. For others it was sorrow at losing a wise and trusted confidant, mentor, and friend. For some it was shock at death’s rudeness. For others it was anger that time had snuck up on life, and that there was a finality that could not be argued over, bargained for, or fixed. And for others it was a graceful understanding that love never dies, and that life is everlasting. And all of that blended together and became the face of grief.
And I was the heart-filled observer of it all. In spite of grief of my own, grief not only for Alice, but grief for everyone else I have ever loved and lost, there was that incessant curiosity that has been my lifelong companion, wanting to make sense of the unexplainable. So what did I learn?
I learned that Alice was many things to many different people. I was left with a three-dimensional image of Alice that was so much richer than the one-dimensional impression I had developed over the years. I learned the importance of our grieving rituals, because somehow, over the course of a week, our mourning was turned to dancing, as we slowly began to accept these new circumstances and integrate them into our experience of life.
But do you ever get used to death? I don’t think so. But somehow we’re able to shift enough to reluctantly include death as an inevitable part of living. And isn’t that ability a marvelous thing?
I would not say that a week later, everything is healed and neatly packaged into a container labeled, “The Life and Death of Alice.” But I would say that each of us has grown, each of us has begun to heal, and each of us has received the gift of seeing life as being just a bit more precious than we had seen it to be before.
How ironic it is that it takes death to appreciate life. That it takes the reviewing of another’s life to pause long enough to review our own. That it’s only after contemplating what will be missed, that we appreciate what we have. That it takes loss to gain love. And wouldn’t it be grand if those realizations could last?
For we are such creatures of habit. Death has a way of rudely waking us up from the numbness of our days. We love to spend our days complaining about this or that, waiting for our lives to really begin. And then when we contemplate it being over, we wish we could enjoy those routine moments all over again. Because none of them are routine at all.
I read a simple book years ago whose name I have long forgotten, that spoke of how easily we remember all the “firsts.” The first time we rode a bicycle. The first time we fell in love. The first time we were kissed. The first time we made love. But wouldn’t life be grand if we were given some warning that we were experiencing the “lasts?” And if you were to live each moment of life as if it were your last, how then would you live?
I am dealing with my own grief, as is my husband dealing with his, and his brothers with theirs. But is the depth of my sadness really for Alice? Or am I feeling all of the regret her death is stirring up in me that I have not lived my life as richly as did she?
Kahlil Gibran once said, “When you are sorrowful, look again into your heart, and you shall see that in truth, you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” And yes – Alice did delight me. But in contemplating that delight, I am left with a hole of realization that I will never again experience that delight as I did before. And the only way I can think of to start filling that hole is to mindfully gather around myself the delights that are so easy to find, but so often overlooked. And if the death of Alice can result in experiencing the delights of life, rather than the struggles, then her death will have had meaning for me.
Will I succeed? I’m not sure, and a little nagging voice is trying to whisper that by next week I will have forgotten all about these words, and that life will once again become numb. But there’s another voice within me, a voice that may be quieter, but that has a strength all its own. That voice is telling me I will never again not know that I have a choice. That voice is telling me that how I choose is up to me, but that knowing I have choice has already been ordained. That voice is telling me that what I do next with that knowing will determine the story that is told about me when it is my turn to die. And what would I like that story to say?
I began with the words of David Seltzer, who observed that for some moments in life there are no words. And then I gave you over a 1000 words trying to do what cannot be done. And although I may have inelegantly tried to sort out an experience that no one looks forward to, but one that we cannot avoid, I am left with a bit more hope than I had when I began. Because Alice taught me that we all have our songs to sing, and it’s up to us whether or not we hit every note.
May the music continue to play………….