There, of course, had been a spat of deaths when I was in middle school. I lost both my grandfathers within a short span. And dogs had come and gone, too – first Oreo got hit by a car and then Mercedes contracted parvo at Christmas. Like a punch to the gut or a ninja kick to the knees, these early experiences of death jerked me alert to reality’s sting.
But grandfathers and dogs were supposed to die. You don’t think much about the other ones, those who go earlier than expected. You remind God that s/he’s not supposed to give you anything you can’t handle. You pray s/he thinks you’re a wuss, too cowardly for such tragedies.
This may be true of me, after all.
During a recent trip back home, I found myself irritated by death. A relative was in the hospital, and people were worried. I didn’t want people to be worried; worry when she’s gone, I thought, and then she was gone. When I returned home, I was relieved to be insulated by the health of 20- and 30-year olds once more. Sure there might be an occasional lump discovered here and there, but it’s too soon to worry. We are not yet gone.
I’ve lost something by living far from family, lost my sense of death and disease and the despair of aging. “I hardly even see them growing weak,” I told my husband.
“I do,” he said without a smack of smugness. “I work at a church. I go to schools and sit with students coping with a suicide. I go to funerals for people I did not know and witness the memory of a life.” He looked at me with eyes steady. ”I get to see death everyday.”
I did not want to see death everyday. But I could tell he thought it a privilege.
How do you meet death so straight-faced without unraveling or going numb? I want to be properly reverent, you know, but it just feels like too much. One day she’s gone. The next day he’s gone. And I’m always a bit removed, still mourning more for the person closest to her or him rather than myself.
I’ve got my hands full of bright, shiny stuff to keep me from thinking of death – from the new fall fashions to the new t.v. lineup to the new restaurant opening downtown. I need to be reminded, punched in the gut and ninja kicked in the knees again, of my finitude, your finitude, our finitude.
Walter Brueggeman defines passion in The Prophetic Imagination as the “capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel.” He calls for more public symbols, honest expressions, and concrete metaphors that sear through our calloused flesh and give us language to confess “the God of endings.” Halloween may anesthetize us with sugar but holidays like Day of the Dead or All Saints’ Day invite us to dress ourselves in the cloak of cemeteries and churches.
It is time I stop overthinking death and swallow it squarely until it becomes part of me, part of you, part of our life together. Things may get worse before they get better, but there is an ending in view.
“Remember not the former things, nor consider things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43: 18-19)