Life can be full of false dichotomies, the most profound of which, it would seem to me, is the way we have come to draw a big black line between life and death.
I’ve been thinking about death, as last week a friend passed away. We knew her time was limited. Cancer. She was 81 – though age, I find, is not the comfort it once was when I was a child and learned of death. For we are all human, and with each passing year of adulthood I find that the idea of maturity is somewhat a myth; I increasingly see the frail child inside each person, myself included, behind the veneer of adulthood.
I am saddened by the thought I won’t bump into her at the shops or see her with her granddaughter when we meet up for the kids to play together. Our friendship was not an especially close one, so I can only imagine how those closest to her are feeling the loss. So without in any way taking from their plight, I want to say honestly how the world does seem a little less joyful as it continues without Dinah in it.
In times of death and mourning, I have returned to this excerpt from Natalie Babbitt’s charming book, Tuck Everlasting, about a family who find a spring that gives eternal life to those who drink from it. When a girl named Winifred finds the spring and discovers the secret of the Tuck family, who drank from it years before, they try to explain the reality of living without death.
“I don’t want to die.”
“No,” said Tuck calmly. “Not now. Your time’s not now. But dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. But it’s passing us by, us Tucks. Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are, it’s useless, too. It don’t make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.”
It’s hard being on the wheel, and saying goodbye.
Another dear friend of mine just lost her brother to throat cancer. And as the family gathered around him for his last weeks of life, she told me that her brother increasingly started talking to her husband, Morris, who died two years ago.
“That’s a nice jacket,” he said. Thinking he was talking about his daughter (who was in the room) and her new jacket, my friend said as much, and her brother said, “No, I’m talking about Morris’ jacket.”
I don’t know what I believe, nor do I think it matters. The question of what happens after we die, or whether angels or any other spirits people experience close to them during their final days are “real” or neurochemistry, all feels moot to me.
No, I think what strikes me about this story, and comforts me, is this idea of a return in death, like the wheel from Tuck’s monologue: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The peaceful nothingness of pre-existence, and the communal nothingness of post-existence.
I see Alan, Morris, and Dinah together, not as human forms but as energy that has left a human body as we knew them. Maybe they are with Brian, Fred, Kitty, Raman, Meghan…those friends I’ve also had to say goodbye to far too soon.
And we will all join them. To be human, to live, is to die.
As it says in Advices and Queries, no. 30:
Accepting the fact of death, we are freed to live more fully.
I can think of no greater equaliser than death, for all of us – young, old, rich, poor, religious, atheist, healthy, sick, male, female, transgender, cis – we will all face death of those we love, and our own death one day.
As I was reflecting on death, I heard Joanna Macy reading the poem “Widening Circles” by Rainer Maria Rilke:
I live my life in widening circles
That reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
But I give myself to it.
I circle around God,
Around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
And I still don’t know:
Am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?
I related deeply to living my life in widening circles, and fully aware that eventually will come a circle I will not complete.
But I found great and surprising comfort in the idea of this being not simply a personal life, a singular way of living, but the human condition: we as humanity live in widening circles, and We have been circling this truth, this Light, or in Rilke’s words, ‘God’, for thousands of years. I am not alone in this quest, spreading outward and circling something True.