Monday, October 25, 2010
It's the end of October, less than a week from Halloween. It's a kids' holiday these days and I don't think many of us stop to think what this day was - All Hallows' E'en - and that it's followed by All Saints' Day. Here is what the World English Dictionary gives as definition of hallow:
1. to consecrate or set apart as being holy
2. to venerate as being holy
[Old English hālgian, from hālig holy ]
Not much seems very holy about Jack-o-Lanterns, fake skeletons, cute costumed kids and bucket-fulls of candy. And there is nothing wrong with that - things change, sometimes they lose meaning and sometimes they acquire new one. But I have been grappling with this concept of holyness, especially as it pertains to this holiday, often perceived as dark, scary, a peek into the "other" more unholy regions. All in good fun and smeared with chocolate, but still - it's supposed to be at least a bit frightening and to put one on edge and the dressing up had started out as a way to keep the spirits at bay and our homes and hearths protected. And, once the night ends and the ghouls retreat, we are to wake up to All Saints' Day. I find that interesting. There seem to be two different kinds of holy at play here - equal and important. This brings me to another, much larger notion knocking about in my head lately and presenting a mighty obstacle to my attempts at preforming the tasks of my daily life.
Lately, and this is something that happens to me from time to time, I have been repeatedly brought face to face with death, in big ways and small ways, in memory and in the present moment, in physical passage of people and animals, as well as in more obscure, perhaps smaller, deaths in my life. It's coming to a year since my sweet mother-in-law left us, slipping out of life and leaving a huge, silent space in the middle of our lives. One of my colleagues lost a spouse today to a vicious and painful disease. A man, a stranger to me, has lost his life the other day in a horrific car accident just two blocks from my home - the long, endless sirens are still echoing in my mind and I can't stop thinking of his little daughter who survived the accident, but will be without her dad for the rest of her life. A friend and her family are mourning the loss of their beloved dog, as she said "their first child." Not trying to put these things in the same plane - each is a separate, significant change and loss to those who are touched by it. There are many small, often hardly noticeable, allegorical deaths around me, too - starting with the somewhat trite autumn transition, but I am less interested in those right now.
I have never felt that death is bad, or scary, or negative. I can't really say why that is - it has simply always been that way. Perhaps, it's the way I grew up and that in our observances we spend a lot of time "with" the dead. All who came before us are still with us and the "passages" between us are fairly open at all times. People in my family constantly refer to those no longer with us and it often seems as if they are not gone at all, but just out of the room at the moment. We visit their graves regularly, at times bringing food and drink to the grave sites to "share". Maybe that had made death less different to me as a child and the feeling persisted. I don't know. That said, while not personally afraid of my own death, I still acutely miss those I love who have died. I can't remember now who said it, and I am paraphrasing liberally, but I do believe that many of us would pay any price to have a two-day's conference with the dead. It might have been Milton or William Blake, or someone like that...
I think it is a great accomplishment to be able to die "well." It is something we, in the normal course of events, have little to no control over and something we have to do without any previous experience or chance to learn (unlike other things we do in life that we mostly get to practice, at least a little bit) - and we have to do it alone. We leave those around us, if we are fortunate enough to die surrounded by family and friends, and go alone where they cannot follow at the moment. I cannot imagine what happens to a person after they die, or even if anything happens at all, other than that they return to the universe both physically and spiritually, but I do know that the person is no longer "there", in that space and breath they had occupied moments before. They do depart, are released- and leave the living behind them. I feel like the tasks of the living are much more demanding than those of the dying - they have to go on and build a new life after the one they had lived has been changed around them. I have heard it said before that death is not fair - I would posit instead that death is eminently fair. It's the most "democratic" of all institutions. It strips away wealth, privilege, good fortune, possessions of all kinds, attachments, but it also takes away all pain, suffering, hunger, bad luck, poor choices. What it does not take away, I believe, is the legacy of the person and the loves of that person since those are not housed in the person, but in others who interacted with them and as long as they are - so will that legacy and love be present. That is what I believe.
Dying is a task we do alone in the end. In that, death bears a remarkable similarity to another task in our lives - our birth. I have now borne three children. I have been blessed with three lovely children. Each one of them had to do the work of birth, with some assistance from me, as an act of becoming separate from me, of leaving and leaving behind. I cannot remember and cannot imagine what it feels like to be born - there has to be a moment at least of extreme loss and loneliness on the journey between the womb and the outside world. Yes, there are welcoming arms to take the newborn and hold it close and lips to whisper love to their unfurling little ears, but the trip there would be taken alone, near blind and helpless and exposed. Talk about stepping off the cliff edge into the unknown... By comparison, dying seems like an easier task.
As the man said, "dying is easy, it's living that's hard."
My dear ones, where ever you are, I love you and I think of you and talk to you all the time. I remember your stories and your advice and I see you in myself and sometimes in my children, too. We are one.