Death and Life, Earth and Heaven

My dear friend Rod has just lost his father in the way that all of us want to lose our fathers someday – after a long and fruitful life, amid the company of family and friends keeping watch over his bed, in a peaceful home, blanketed by prayers. His words are so full of holiness and wonder that you owe it to yourself to read them. But they got me thinking, as they often do.

We kept a vigil of our own just days ago, as my sister brought the next generation of our family into the world, and in reading about my friend's adieu journey, I’ve been struck by many similarities between the beginning and the end of earthly existence. Waiting for a loved one to be born is just as joyful, just as frightening, just as sacred as waiting for his death. Endless uncertainty, at the mercy of medical professionals who (for all their education and experience) have to admit in the end that they, too, are baffled by the amazing and absurd things our bodies can do. And then can't anymore.

Watching, wondering, trying to reconcile the flood of emotions with daily existence. This person is in such terrible pain, but I need a cup of coffee just to stay awake with him. Time becomes malleable, now compressed into a tumultuous blur of moments and now elongated so that every second is agony. You can’t truly empathize with the experience of your loved one in the hospital bed, and you wonder, guiltily: what is it really like for her? What would it be like for me? To give birth? To die?

I’ve always felt a connection with the protagonist of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and not just because we share a name. From the other side, she looks back at the world, and is filled with true nostalgia – the pain of nostos, of returning home. It is excruciating:

Mr. Webb: Where's my girl? Where's my birthday girl?
Emily: I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. She breaks down sobbing. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners ... Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking ... and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths ... and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. She asks abruptly, through her tears: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. Pause. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.
Emily: I'm ready to go back.

A sprinkling of salt on a chocolate pie, a spoonful of honey in a spicy vinaigrette: both are better with a swirled-in bit of their opposite to intensify and prolong their beauty. The line between joy and sorrow is such a fine one that neither can be experienced without a touch of the other. You greet the squalling child with a shout of exultation, but hovering behind your beaming eyes is the realization that she will know loneliness and want. She will live a life full of pain, but also full of Emily Gibbs’ ticking clocks and hot coffee and the lovely, terrible moonlight. And someday she will be right back on the edge, and her descendants will gather around her and weep, but in the distance they will feel a thrill of delight for her, on the verge of entering back into the eternal bliss to which we are all called by that still, small voice.

From death to life, from earth to heaven, this existence is a blessed mystery.