Thoughts on Death

How’s that for a cheery title? I was going to write about the report on the cover up of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, but I thought death would be more of a pick-me-up on a Monday morning….

I’ll have more to say later about the SBC report, which is absolutely unsurprising and yet enraging.

Kind of like death, actually.

I have a friend, Amy–a beautiful, thoughtful, lovely woman my age–whose struggle with cancer is coming to an end. She just posted that her doctors have stopped her treatment because nothing has worked, and she is now on palliative care.

It is frankly an outrage, that this talented, interesting, funny, kind woman has only been given 47 years. Some Nazis are still alive, some murderers live into their 90s. Robert Mugabe, who killed thousands of his countrymen and economically destroyed his gorgeous Zimbabwe, died at 97. But God has seen fit to give Amy 50 years less than that. I will never, ever understand or accept that as fair, I don’t care what kind of platitudes mine or any other faith offers to explain it.

I grew up with Amy in Kenya. We weren’t close friends, but I liked her. I also envied her. She was blond and tan and beautiful, she had cool hair and nice clothes. She was one of the popular kids, but never snobby or unkind like some others. I was pale and awkward and nerdy and popular only as far as my dogged extroversion and class-clownish antics could take me. I was at least bold enough to hang out with some of the popular kids, some of the time. I rarely had a boyfriend, whereas Amy always did, including my years-long crush, Ralph. Ralph showed brief interest in me in 7th grade–looking back I think it was a dare/cruel joke–and I pined for him for years after that. Amy was his girlfriend for at least a year, if not two. I spent a ridiculous amount of time studying her, trying to figure out how I could be as pretty and stylish and alluring so that I, too, might be worthy of Ralph. Worthy of any kind of love, really. At one point, she and I shared an infirmary room for a week, along with 2 other afflicted girls, with the most aggressive dysentery I’ve ever had. Ralph repeatedly visited her through our window, and although I was mortified he would see me (not to mention smell me, oof, it was like an open sewer in that room) in such a calamitous condition, I figured my proximity to Amy elevated me somewhat.

I doubt her high school success is much consolation for Amy now. Then again, maybe it is. Maybe as she looks back on her life, she remembers being young, hot, and awesome, and it brings a smile to her face. I hope so. I hope she was as happy then as I imagined her to be.

I’m trying to draw out some kind of deep insight here, but I am honestly at a loss, bowled over by the irony and absurdity and unpredictability of life. At 16, you can be deeply jealous of another girl, having no idea a) what her experience actually is and b) that your story will include many more chapters than hers. That you are actually far luckier than she, when it’s all said and done. At least as far as I know now, which isn’t much, really. I might be diagnosed with cancer next week and be gone within a year. We’ve all known that to happen.

She’s saying an extended good-bye, spending time with loved ones, visiting beloved places and bucket-list ones as her health allows, inhaling the beauty of the earth. She knows what is coming. She’s written beautifully about it, with wit and grace and insight. Her faith remains far stronger than mine has ever been. She’s put her full weight on it, and it seems to be bearing up under the load. I have to say, as outrageous as her situation is, as unfair as it is, it is also inexplicably, achingly exquisite to see her walk through it, surrounded by love, carried in a warm embrace. I see God in it somehow, though I also blame him for it. It’s all permeated with Presence. It is as sacred of ground as I can imagine.

I eat well and exercise and do all the things recommended to preserve my own life for many years to come. With my genetics and generally good health, I am likely to live to be very old. By then, I imagine I will be mostly alone. Hopefully, my children will still be around and will want to be around me, but I’ve seen too many dysfunctional parent-child relationships to count on that. I imagine my husband will be gone, and any good friends I have left will be too infirm to keep much of my company. Who’s to say what one gains from a longer life, beyond a certain point. The loss is much more deep for the ones left behind. My husband says he would choose to be immortal if it were possible, but that sounds kind of exhausting to me, as much as I love my life. Certainly the list of people who drive you crazy has got to be pretty long after a few hundred years. Maybe life’s finiteness is part of its appeal.

I used to be terrified of death, and of course we all fear it, I don’t care what anyone says, we are biologically programmed to fear death, otherwise we’d all be more careless with our lives and the human species would have died out long ago. But I used to be terrified of dying and going to hell. My faith was far from a comfort, it was a torment. It told me that all but a tiny sliver of us were destined for eternal damnation. It offered a lifeline so strictly defined–you had to say just the right words in a prayer and have just the right beliefs and do just the right things to indicate it had all taken hold and you couldn’t have any doubts–that I feared I wouldn’t make the cut.

As I’ve become more agnostic, loosened my grip on my faith, and made friends with my doubt, I’ve stopped fearing hell (a grave mistake in the minds of many of my loved ones, I am sure). I’ve started entertaining the idea that I will just cease to exist, much like before I was born. I don’t know if that is what will happen. I still hope for heaven. But I’m not especially bothered about passing into unconsciousness, if that is what death is.

Mainly I want more time. I don’t want to run out of time, although I can’t articulate exactly why, exactly what fuels the inextricable panic that runs through my veins when I consider my time could be quite short. I don’t want to leave my children and husband, that’s true. But also, I guess I want to make sure I do something, I leave something, I am somebody. I’m not sure I’ve achieved that yet. Few of us do anyway. Even most American presidents aren’t remembered except for by the extra nerdy among us. Millard Fillmore is lucky to feature in a Jeopardy round.

We went to Normandy last month. All four of us are WW2 history buffs, and I was enraptured by the intense presence of time and place, as we stared out at tranquil beaches once clogged with men and tanks, on which the fate of the world hung in the balance, and as we walked through musty, muddy bunkers where Nazi soldiers watched and waited for the invasion they knew was coming. For their own deaths, or at least the death of their cause.

I went through the perfectly symmetrical phalanx of alabaster gravestones at the American cemetery. A 22 year-old here, an 18 year-old there, an occasional old man of 30. They were given so little time. They left broken hearts and unrealized dreams. We don’t remember many of their names. Their living relatives are increasingly distant and uninformed. But we don’t doubt they did something extraordinary as a collective. Who has ever achieved more than those boys? They bent the curve of history. For their short lives, they got that in the bargain.

We are all born, and we all die. Those are the two most ordinary of human experiences. We cling to our lives with all we have. We love all the while knowing we will lose it all, tragically, devastatingly. We all want to make our mark, and very, very few of us do as individuals. But we all do collectively, organically, just by being. We pass through this life on this earth, either on a long or a short journey, arduous or breezy, and we beat a path with our feet. Someone built the home in which I raise my children to go out to do something which propels someone else to do something else and so on. Someone grew the food that sustains me while write this post, and someone else will read it (OK, maybe not…the story may end right here…), and it might remind them in some odd way to water a new tree that will grow into a behemoth that will put oxygen into the air that will fill the lungs of more people who come behind us and put more droplets into the ocean of existence and keep this miraculous train of humanity on its tracks for another thousands upon thousands of years. There’s a movement, a current, an energy in which we all inhabit.

Or maybe there really is a heaven. Either way, there’s a meaning and a reality beyond what we know or can see.

And either way, Amy’s life has had a purpose. She will leave a legacy. She can’t help it. None of us can help it.

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