Death Be Not Proud
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;…
Maybe it's because I am a Jew, and have a slightly morbid outlook on life. Or maybe because I saw my first dead body when I was 6 years old and realized that there wasn't that much of a difference between it and me. Whatever the reasons, I have a tendency to think about death a great deal.
I don't obsess about it, mind you. I believe that death is simply a part of life, hopefully one that comes after many, many fruitful years of life. But I try not to delude myself - we all live from heartbeat to heartbeat and it can stop . . . just like that (snaps fingers). As a Jew, there is no heaven or hell for me. Most Jews believe that hell is being without God. So the opposite, being with the spirit of God, would be heavenly. (Although, when I think about the evil humans are capable of - against children, against the elderly, against animals - there are days that I certainly wish there is a Hell.) So what do I think about when I think about death?
For one thing, I believe that as long as people remember me, I will be immortal, I will live on with the love of my children and their children, and others who remember me. Oliver Wendel Holmes said, "What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal." When I write, of course I write for myself, but not for myself alone. My hope is always that I can make someone smile or laugh, or at least think, just a bit about something. Because if I can do that, a part of me, a bit of my essence that is my soul, stays with the reader, and therefore I connect with another person.
For another thing, I have never "gotten over" anyone's death, not even the dogs of my childhood. There is a terrific show on the Sci-Fi network called Killjoys. It has good character development and good dialogue. In one episode, two of the characters were talking to each other, after one lost someone she loved.
"How do I get over this, Pree?"
"Oh, sweetheart... You don't. Life isn't about getting over or letting go. Just moving ahead … because there's nothing behind you but shadows."
That's how I feel about it - I may miss everyone I've loved and lost, but I cannot burrow under the sheets and stop living, at least not for long. I have to keep moving ahead, carrying them in my memory and heart. The memories of them don't weigh me down. They give me strength to keep going.
Oh, that very first dead person I saw? She was a neighbor of my grandparents, a woman who died in her sleep when she was in her late 70, and her body was carried out in a wooden casket by her family, and there was a little procession to accompany the body to the burial.
We, Jews, have a prayer for the dead that we recite at the end of every service, and the anniversary of loved ones’ death. It is known as the Mourners Kaddish, but strangely enough, there is no mention of death in it. Rather, it is a glorification of God and the many blessings bestowed by God.
There are two more thoughts from the Reform Judaism prayer book. Well, one is a thought and one is a poem. This is the thought: “Thus, even when they are gone, the departed are with us, moving us to live as, in their higher moments, they themselves wished to live. We remember them now; they live in our hearts; they are an abiding blessing.”
This is the poem:
It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing to love, hope, dream: to be –
To be, and oh! to lose.
A thing for fools this, and a holy thing,
A holy thing to love.
For your life has lived in me,
Your laugh once lifted me,
Your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings a painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love, a holy thing,
What death has touched.
Among the many deaths I have experienced, I often think of my grandparents, my stillborn baby, my sister-in-law, my only uncle, and Mr. Pearson, the greatest teacher I had the honor of knowing, who died when I was still an undergraduate. And I think about my step-father-in-law, who passed away last year. Each and every death marks me, changes me in indelible ways. In some ways I am a culmination of them, those who passed before me. How do you know who you are unless you have suffered losses? What is your character when it is tested by grief and pain and heartbreak?
It is death, or rather the fear of it – the awareness that it is inevitable, propels us to live the very best we possibly can. "Death tugs at my ear and says, 'Live. I am coming.'" – Oliver Wendel Holmes