(for Crad Kilodney)
“Sic transit something something”
like glory, memory fades
Don’t let us be bashful:
I came, I’ll stay awhile
and I shall die
The narcissist is dismayed,
the absolutist justified
© Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
After writing my previous mini-essay, I discovered some wise words from the dean of comparative religion, Huston Smith. This excerpt is from his autobiography, Tales of Wonder, and relates his experiences following the deaths of a beloved daughter and grand-daughter. I revere Mr. Smith and this is why:
“After Karen’s death I had returned to work; after Serena’s, I sat in a dark room, to which eventually I admitted a few friends, not for them to utter words of comfort—what comfort was there?—but for the mute warmth of another presence. Yet when a reporter asked me, ‘Have your tragedies shaken your faith in God?’ I thought it a ridiculous question. What about the Holocaust and all the other catastrophes we know as history? They did not make my own loss less but kept me from imagining that I had suffered a unique vengeance that impugned the idea of God instead of making God more necessary.
Christ said, ‘Blessed are those that mourn’. Had I been living in Jerusalem, I would have joined the mourners grieving and praying at the Wailing Wall. Suffering led the Buddha to enlightenment, and it may cause us, against our will, to grow in compassion, awareness, and possibly eventually peace. In Buddhism monks daily recite the Five remembrances, which are: I will lose my youth, my health, my dear ones and everything I hold dear, and finally lose life itself, by the very nature of my being human. These are bitter reminders that the only thing that continues is the consequences of our action. The fact that all the things we hold dear and love are transient does not mean that we should love them less but—as I do Karen and Serena—love them even more. Suffering, the Buddha said, if it does not diminish love, will transport you to the farther shore.”
There’s been a lot of bad news of late. Friends and close acquaintances in dire straits. A memorial service for a kid only a few years older than our boys. Death seems to be hovering in the air around us, playing eeny-meeny-miney-mo with people we care about. A cruel, arbitrary figure, a Shade with a mean streak.
We’ve reached middle age now and we have to expect losses. Like the old Doors song goes: no one here gets out alive. But it’s not right when it’s kids who are afflicted and young mothers and devoted partners…blameless ones who shouldn’t be singled out for torment or earmarked for an early demise. They deserve better. That they should suffer is unfair and a universe that permits that to happen can’t possibly be caring or sentient or the slightest bit aware of our existence. A cold, dead universe. Endless and eternal and empty.
I know nothing of the physics of death. I can’t tell you the weight of a human soul or confirm that such a thing even exists. I’ve tried reading up on the science—the conversion of matter to energy and the possibility of alternate universes, hyper-realities—but, in the end, my intelligence and imagination just aren’t up to the task.
All I know is that I love you and these recent, grim reminders of mortality make me appreciate what we have and give thanks for every drawn breath. These bedside vigils and funerals are rehearsals for a time that is bound to come and we lose one of ours. That may sound selfish but it’s not. Our grief is just as sincere and our sympathy for what those poor families must be enduring genuine and heartfelt. We imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes and our souls quake. When faced with such a horrifying spectacle, we avert our eyes.
To experience the death of a loved one is, to my mind, the ultimate test of faith. Can your belief system withstand a loss so profound? Can your theology and/or worldview accommodate an agony that rends your very being? Can your God bear the heat of your anguish and rage?
We’ve been together a long time, you and I. Not only in this lifetime but before that. We’ve known each other and always recognize one another each time we meet. As long as you are with me, I can survive anything. I truly believe this. Grief and despair may make me a shadow of my former self but as long as I am comforted by the knowledge of your existence, I will persist, I will struggle; against the odds, against the darkness, believing to my dying breath that being your lover and confidante ennobles me and gives me purpose, the will to go on.
You are all the proof I need. There are terrible things afoot, a darkness creeping in from the edges. Let’s treasure our time together, love, rather than allow fear to take from us all that is worth keeping and preserving. We must refuse to allow mortal dread to defeat us and it is our shared strength that will save us. In the face of death, affirm that we are alive and full of passion and joy and foolish dreams. Confronted by the worst, we pledge to show a brave face, while clutching at each other for the companionship and comfort we know we will find there.
Or…maybe you do.
Living in abject fear, a state of near unbearable suspense, day after day. How wearing that can be. Because that’s what we’re talking about here. A mindset centred around dread, a soul-sucking sense that things are about to fall to pieces and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.
How can someone exist like that? How can they face getting up in the morning? What keeps them going?
Questions only the uninitiated, the smugly secure would dare ask.
Y’see, what the preceding sentences have failed to convey is the intoxication someone like me feels when a potential crisis peters out into insignificance. The surge of relief that provokes can’t be matched or simulated by any mind-altering drug I’m aware of.
And on those rare occasions when my worst fears turn out to be justified, the sense of relief and vindication I experience is…sublime. I actually tremble with the sick pleasure a junkie must feel just as the needle hits its mark. I’m like Chicken Little, running around, clucking with excitement and joy as big chunks of the firmament crash to earth around me.
“Rawwwwk! Told you so! Told you so!”
I’ve always been a worrier, possessed by the certainty that happiness is transitory and danger lurks around every corner. My childhood was like that, perhaps even my infancy; the baby who always makes strange, no matter how many funny faces you pull. Filled with such foreboding when faced with each new encounter or experience that I was literally sick to my stomach. Vaccinations, the first day of school, a trip to the dentist; preparing for these minor inconveniences as if they were a very public and brutal form of execution.
I can recall nearly wetting myself whenever I was called down to the principal’s office. It invariably turned out to be something mundane, a message from my parents, a form that needed to be picked up. I’d exit the office and immediately make a beeline for the nearest washroom.
My high school years were no better. So fraught with painful anticipation, consumed by a nervous energy that burned off every ounce of my frame; I weighed about 125 pounds the day I graduated. A long, thin stick insect, whittled down to the quick by neuroses. Not an attractive figure.
There’s been some improvement since then but I still get thrown into a tizzy over relatively commonplace occurrences:
* A stopped up drain means ripping up the basement floor and paying an astronomical fee to some greedhead plumber (it turns out ten minutes of roto-rooting and a $150 touch does the trick)
* A stalling car means replacing the engine, maybe even being forced to buy a new(er) vehicle (no, actually the spark plugs need changing)
* One of my sons having a grumpy day is an early manifestation of a depressive personality (nope, he just got out of bed on the wrong side that morning)
And did I mention that I’m a borderline hypochondriac? Now there’s a lovely combination. So every ache, every twinge is magnified in importance, exaggerated, fretted over. A belly ache could mark the onset of pancreatic cancer. A rare headache could mean a malignant brain tumour. See what I mean? And what about this latest development, waking up at 5:00 a.m. in the morning with low-grade nausea. Not out and out sick-making, just a weird, unpleasant feeling in my lower gut. Does this mean anything? Is it significant in any way?
That nervous energy sometimes manifests itself as a racing heart. Occasionally I get little jolts and twinges. And with a family history of heart disease that could be an indication of a problem. Or not. But, let’s be candid here, one day–it might be tomorrow, it might not happen for decades–my fears will be realized, my body at last betraying me and those small aches and pains will coalesce into something genuinely life-threatening, something that keeps on growing until it blocks some vital pathway or invades and compromises a critical organ. Punishment (or reward) for all those years of waiting for something serious to crop up, a final confirmation of the bad news I’ve been expecting all along.
Each day I pray for release from the irrational fears that afflict and bedevil me. I place myself in my Creator’s hands and repeat my personal mantra of “health, happiness and wisdom” over and over again. Not only for myself, but also for family, friends and loved ones.
I know sooner or later it all comes to an end. Each one of us, at last, runs down, ceases to function, the machinery wearing out with a grinding of gears, sparks, smoke pouring from our ears. No one here gets out alive.
Funny, I don’t really fear growing old. That doesn’t factor into my thinking. As a catastrophist, of course, I have serious doubts I’ll live that long.
Frankly, knowing the end is nigh will undoubtedly come as something of a relief. It takes so much fucking energy and strength constantly fretting about money, not being able to properly provide for my sons’ education, what if something happens to the house. Etc. etc.
The sense of panic that almost unmans me when I can’t shake the thought that I might not be up to the task and that, inevitably, life is going to present me with an intractable problem, something I can’t solve, hide or ignore. I am hounded by the knowledge that I’m really not that smart or strong or brave. And that the time will come when my weaknesses and vulnerabilities will be exposed (Christ, better anything than that). The worst feeling, the greatest terror I have is that I won’t be able to save the people I love or prevent some terrible personal apocalypse that will consume them while I watch, helpless to intercede. My resolve failing me at a crucial juncture, my faith evaporating away as I face on-rushing danger. Something I glimpsed a long time ago.
Remember? I tried to warn you of its impending approach, tried to make you understand the severity of the situation…but you told me it was all in my mind.