“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme,and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.” – Gilda Radner
I learned this morning that Natalie, whom I’ve known most of my life, and who is only a few years older than I, passed away yesterday at 6:32 p.m. She had battled the devouring dragon of cancer for a long time. Her death, I have been told, was quiet.
At my desk, blithely culling my decades-deep archives for pictures for yesterday’s post, I was thinking of this woman as her image passed under my eyes. It’s strange and painful but somehow beautiful to think that in the same moment I was posting away, crossing and recrossing my legs, breathing steadily and smiling while studying a friend’s features, that very friend was being released from this life and the diseased body that encased her buoyant spirit.
Someone wrote on Facebook that “her spirit [was now] free as the wind,” and someone else expressed her conviction that Natalie is now surrounded by loving heavenly beings. These are things I believe.
Correction: These are things I know.
I don’t expect anyone else to believe or know them as I do. But given that the header-title up there announces the fact that Melissa Writes of Passage, it makes sense that I stare down the ultimate and common passage, death. I do not know death from the horrifying and perhaps purifying experience of extended suffering that Natalie had, the one that her family and closest friends have ushered her through; I do, however, know some other things from irrefutable, repeated and shared experience that is so intimate, I hesitate to put it in words, written or whispered. Forgive me as I lurch and fumble.
“Life after death” is about two realities: what happens with those of us who survive the death of another, and what happens when we die. Life in some form follows both events. I’ll talk first about the first, grief, which I know well. I’m still moving toward the second experience, as are we all.
Surviving another’s death; Living with grief
In this slippery passage of life, we can’t be certain about what’s going to happen next. We can, however, be sure that death will be at the end of all the uncertainty, the final leveler. It will be there, waiting, at whatever will mark the end of your mortality and mine, and of the mortality of every last person we know and love. Death can come in any way, at any moment, and to any one. Let that be a warning. Let that be a reward.
With that backdrop, being in this life might sometimes feel like we’re Mr. Magoo bumbling through an obstacle course built on lava-filled and rapidly shifting plate tectonics while being chased down on all sides by Dementors, Orks and Aliens. I’ve had those not-so-deliciously ambiguous moments, which sprang not from anticipating my own death, but from outliving my own child.
Gildna Radner, the comedienne, was a performer, as was Natalie, the violinist. Both women died too young of cancer. For some bereaved, I can imagine their friends’ suffering and deaths feel cruel, brutal, heinous, ironic, senseless. As the survivor of my son’s tragic death at age eighteen, I know something about the way these feelings of grief can throb and rage inside the rib cage, gnaw at the base of the brain, put dangerous tension on relationships, and how they can singe the corners and core of the heart.
There are other responses, however, which might come over time and from making challenging, deliberate choices. They can lead from raging in the rib cage to enlargement, from gnawing in the mind to illumination, from tension in our ties to welding, from singeing in the heart to singing.
What is the most important ‘”challenging and deliberate” choice we who live might make in order to glean something from death?
I suggest we begin by choosing to look at it. “Let death be daily before your eyes, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything,” wrote Epicetus. A modern spiritual leader expanded on the same thought:
All men know that they must die. And it is important that we should understand the reasons and causes of our exposure to the vicissitudes of life and of death, and the designs and purposes of our coming into the world, our sufferings here, and our departure hence. . . . It is but reasonable to suppose that God would reveal something in reference to the matter, and it is a subject we ought to study more than any other. We ought to study it day and night, for the world is ignorant in reference to their true condition and relation. If we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything it is for knowledge on this important subject.
Until the evil of death is acknowledged for the traumatic event it is, we live, I believe, actively devaluing and rejecting two of our most humanizing qualities; vulnerability and compassion. Minimizing the impact of death also numbs the innate spiritual ability in all of us to refigure our relationships, which I believe continue in spite of separation through death. These continuing ties can greatly enhance our living years. They can guide us. They can, even, give us greater life. Dr. Kaye Redfield Jamison, clinical psychologist and author, says something similar:
‘Blessings may break from stone,’ wrote George McKay Brown. ‘Who knows how.’ Grief is such a stone. It gives much to the living, slows time that one might find a way to a different relationship with the dead. It fractures time to bring into awareness what is being mourned and why. … ‘Sometimes I think that the search for suffering and the remembrance of suffering are the only means we have to put ourselves in touch with the whole human condition,’ wrote Graham Greene. Grief is at the heart of the human condition. Much is lost with death, but not everything. Life is not let loose of lightly, nor is love. There is grace in death. There is life.
Kay Redfield Jamison, Nothing Was The Same, pp.181,182
Our own death; Living eternally
What I can add to Gilda Radner is that after death, I know something does happen. That is delicious to me. Deliciously unambiguous.
Death as an event is not shrouded in ambiguity. It is straightforward, natural, an advancement, a transformation, a passage. As spiritual entities inhabiting mortal bodies, we are not meant to remain in this decaying state nor on this earth forever. We are intended for far more magnificent and expansive experiences. As said the French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.
But we cling desperately to this life. It’s only human to do so. Hundreds of devoted friends fought and campaigned and lobbied the medical and heavenly powers that be for Natalie’s life. There were glorious benefits concerts, generous donations, organized caretakers, trips for retreat, quiet mornings spent just sitting with her, I’ve been told, and the countless communal fasts and desperate prayers, I’m sure. Mine were among them. We’ve all known how the best in the human spirit can be caught into the warm updraft of the divine, and how entire communities, entire lives, can be altered by a crisis like this. How we will tear, tooth and nail, and shred at heaven’s curtain for a brother or sister’s survival!
Last month, however, Natalie visited my parents. She’s known them, fellow musicians, since the days captured in these photos from the ’70’s. It was a simple, brief visit in their living room. Natalie was conserving energy, she said, which explained her hushed voice, her stillness, the palpable calm that spread out in the room like the sound and shade of a sunset.
“We’re redoubling our prayers for you, Natalie,” my Mom said.
“And hoping for another breakthrough and some sort of–”
Natalie cut my Dad off, mid-phrase, with a limp wave of the hand.
“No, no. Please. Don’t pray for healing,” she insisted, her eyes steady. “I’m prepared now. Pray for my release.”
I have to conclude she told others the same. And released she was.
Natalie didn’t know in July of 2007, when she played prelude music on her violin at our son’s funeral, that cancer cells were already conspiring to assault and destroy her body. That only six years later, she would join our musician boy in the neighboring realm – “the next room”, as a prophet once called heaven, the vast world of spirits.
What happened next? Graceful, ivory-skinned Natalie stepped into a slow explosion of ultra radiance peopled with “loving heavenly beings,” who from their watchful position, have known and mentored her in life, who have in turn awaited her arrival with shimmering joy and outstretched arms, who have since swept her up, gathering her into glistening, swirling currents of unbelievable, unearthly music. She is playing as never before.