At times, a topic presents itself so eminently that it is impossible to ignore. I’ve been wanting to write about this for some time, but knowing that some of you may reject it outright – as it is an uncomfortable matter – I’ve procrastinated putting my pen to paper… or keyboard to the data-stream, as the case may be. Yet, certain recent happenings have thrust this subject into my view over and over again. And I dare not shunt it to one side any longer.
Among the many whom I’ve met at the crossroads of my life, Death is by far the most intimate friend and stringent pedagogue I’ve ever known. He is the most steadfast of all my acquaintances and I believe I can say, “I know him well.”
I’ve been remembering, of late, my friend who died of cancer a few years ago. I have another dear friend who has been in the hospital over a dozen times this year with various life-threatening conditions. The physicians are stumped as to the cause. My last remaining aunt on my mother’s side has been similarly hospitalized over and over. Each time we wonder whether to get the plane tickets ready.
A colleague of mine at work lost his wife this year. Another colleague just lost his twenty-two year old son in a tragic accident. And yet another colleague lost his brilliant twenty-nine year old brother to an untreatable disease. All these seemed to be taken “before their time” – before they even reached the prime of their lives.
Most recently, a dear friend of mine lost one of her closest friends to the steely vice of suicide. She was there at his home when they found his body. Only two years earlier, she lost another friend to suicide; and her dear mother recently passed on as well.
My heart bleeds for all these, but especially for her as it is so raw at the moment. What agony this must be? I am grateful that she believes in an afterlife. If not, then what consolation could there possibly be for anyone who loses love to the icy embrace of Death? What a dark world it must be for those who refuse to understand the eternal nature of all things everywhere.
“Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter,” – Master Yoda (George Lucas). For all the nay-saying modern science may provide, the oft’ ignored fact remains that there are countless truths of this vast universe we cannot even begin to comprehend. In such matters of time and eternity, of the body and spirit, of the passage between veils of existence; we are as a mere ant standing atop a monster-truck tire, waiving our antennae in exultation at our own sagacity; while glibly, the tire continues to rotate as it always has. We may be vaguely aware that something massive is moving beneath us without the faintest perception of its size, structure or purpose.
And so, Death, the undiscovered country, becomes idiosyncratic to each of us based upon our encounters with him. As I mentioned, he is an intimate friend of mine: cruel in his convention, yes; an unyielding schoolmaster whose hand may be stayed only briefly, before inexorably carrying out its course.
Two of my dogs have died in my arms. My grandfather died in my bed. I stood by with my father, watching the final breath escape his tormented frame as my grandmother cried. I’ve had the privilege to witness death in its many forms and having done, I come to one conclusion. Death is beautiful.
Before you begin accusing me of morbid necromancy, please allow me to explain. I am a pacifist. I believe in the power of peace and in the imperial importance of respecting all life: because Life too, is beautiful. More beautiful than anything I can imagine.
The reason I say that Death is beautiful is because to me, it is a continuation of Life. There is no cessation, only transition. When I saw, felt and witnessed my grandfather exhale his last breath, I also saw, felt and witnessed a majestic crossing. It wasn’t even enough of an event to hardly note. It was as easy as taking a step through a silken curtain. No strain. No pain. No effort. It was as though this world and this body held him down like a drowning man. And when he released his last breath here, he was finally able to break free of the surf and take his first clear breath There.
My friend who is suffering from the chronic conditions no physician can heal has experienced near-death. She spent a week in a medically-induced coma during which time she passed in and out of the great beyond. While her body and brain were completely insensate, her spirit lucidly experienced reunions with family and friends who had also passed on; walks and talks with guides and teachers; and eventually the choice to return.
She didn’t want to come back. The passage of a week seemed like the blink of an eye. According to her, the world beyond this one is far more real and far more enthralling. The thing that made up her mind to return was the thought of her girls having to grow up without a mother. She needed to be here for them.
Neal A. Maxwell stated, “We are clearly not at home in time—because we belong to eternity! Time, as much as any one thing, whispers to us that we are strangers here. If time were natural to us, why is it that we have so many clocks and wear wristwatches?”
Here, we are visitors only whose home lies a short life beyond us. William Wordsworth wrote:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.
One of the most memorable and moving deaths I’ve ever experienced was that of a dove. It was mid-winter and slush was on the road. As I drove through a busy intersection, I noticed a bird flailing on the ground, traffic speeding by on every side. I’m an animal-lover and I really can’t stand to see any living thing in pain. I pulled over and stomped out into the middle of the intersection, figuring the cars would stop for me – a pedestrian – even if they wouldn’t stop for the fallen bird.
I gently lifted her from the sludge and muck of the road, wrapped my scarf around her and tucked her carefully against my coat as I made my way through the cacophony of horns and driver protests. She was shaking. Poor thing. I walked over to a snow bank and laid her gently near the ground in the soft clean snow. Crimson tears fell from a gash in her breast and I knew there would be no saving her.
I stepped back a moment, giving her a reprieve from our terrifying humankind. Allowing her to die with some dignity was the best I could offer. It only took a moment: those last few breaths. And then I witnessed something I’ll never forget. This beautiful little dove who had spent her life on the wing, riding the currents of air above all the earth-bound creatures, spread her wings as if to fly. She was completely earthbound, lying there in the padded snow. But as her breath expired and her spirit crossed over into that great beyond, she thought she was flying. And responded appropriately.
Utterly dazed and profoundly moved, I just stood there in the snow. Tears streamed half-way down my cheeks before they froze there. I’m still not certain why this little dove touched me so. Perhaps because she wasn’t trying to show me anything. She wasn’t trying to explain what was going on as she died. She wasn’t preaching to me about how it’ll all be alright when I die or when others die. She simply was. She simply did what she knew to do without excuse and without fanfare.
There is something profoundly magical about that. I can’t even put into words the things I learned that day from this wounded dove in the snow. I will always be grateful to her for teaching me an eternal truth as she carved out a diminutive room in the home of my heart and brought me one step closer to truly knowing my friend, Death.