I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try.
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing
But I can’t help listening.
As we head toward the cocoon of the year (winter), a “dying” that leads, reliably, to next spring’s renewal and rebirth — I’ve been thinking about human death, which seems so irretrievably permanent. RBG most recently, one of our national heroes. The week before, John Hubbuch, a good man and a good friend. And the same day, Diana Rigg, my first great crush as an impressionable teen.
When those of importance to us die, it is not just their lives but ours that flash before our eyes.
I’ve thought about death a great deal over the decades. That’s partly because I have edited the obituary page for over two decades. Death is one of our silent companions as we move through life, sometimes crowding us, sometimes giving us space. We don’t know what happens when people die, but we can’t help wondering. And wishing. Some of us believe, and some of us don’t, that life continues on in some form. But I suspect all of us wonder — or expend energy suppressing that wonder. I don’t know whether it’s better to live as if there is an afterlife or to live as if there isn’t. But I can’t imagine not wishing it were so.
Losing people becomes a more frequent occurrence as we move along. As Roseanne Cash wrote, “I am the list of all those I’ve lost.” (“The World Unseen”)
Last week I received quite a few condolences, mostly from readers who saw my tribute to John Hubbuch, but also from those who have known me a much longer time and knew how taken I was by the inimitable Mrs. Peel of “The Avengers.”
One of the condolences came from a friend — a musician and, secondarily, a lawyer — who wrote:
“I’m sorry about the loss of your friend and editorial pal. There’s too much of that going around. But there, too, our next step is to forge our way through it all. I’ve been listening to a lot of gospel for the last year — all kinds of songs about the other side of the river and other metaphors. One of my favorite hopes is that there is the other side and that all those people we love are there. If I were a loving God, I’d make sure of that. Meanwhile, we do what we can here.”
All of this made me go from thinking about death to writing about it.
Death has certainly been crowding us this year. Two hundred thousand and counting, in addition to all the “normal” deaths. Mortality focuses the mind wonderfully, like the proverbial condemned prisoner who is scheduled to die in a fortnight. A few months back I mentioned that one of the things I learned from this pandemic, to my surprise, is how much I don’t want to die. And how much I still want to live because there are too many things I want to do. It wasn’t the “not wanting to die” that surprised me. It was the intensity of wanting to live.
I think of George Bailey near the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, leaning over the railing of the bridge that, just hours (or was it minutes, or a lifetime?) ago, he had considered jumping from to his death. Now, after having his non-life flash before his eyes, he cries out, with the intensity that only Jimmy Stewart could muster, “I want to live again! Please, God, let me live again!”
We don’t all benefit from that level of epiphany. Mine was a minor version of it, boosted by the example of John Hubbuch and RBG, who lived such rich, full lives. And Diana Rigg, who set the parameters for my idealized view of women in my highly hormonal youth.
John liked to say that life is a marathon, not a sprint, but having never attempted a marathon, I imagine after running all that way, the temptation to quit is most intense with only a few miles to go. It is a temptation that must be resisted with everything left in us. Finish strong, as strong as you can.
RBG finished strong. She never quit, and if she didn’t, after all she went through, neither must we.
Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space.
You never know what will be coming down.
Perhaps a better world is drawing near.
Just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found.
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
Go on and make a joyful sound.
I want to live as long as I can. And I want to live right up to the end. What that means differs for each of us. I’m still figuring it out, and I hope you are, too.
Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown.
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know.
“For a Dancer”
I don’t know what happens when people die, and I don’t know the reason I am alive — except that it somehow involves love, and learning to love better. Annie Dillard said, “You were made and set here … to give voice to your own astonishment,” which is certainly true in her case. And I agree that life is a great astonishment.
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around. Throw some seeds of your own. Go on and make a joyful sound. Let others figure out the reason you were alive.
Live like your life depends on it.