In expressing my mind, words come easily. When giving voice to my heart, they don’t.
During breakfast one morning, my wife, Jo, and I were discussing how we both understood death, specifically about the sense of loss that falls to the survivor.
I have to confess that I have never fully accepted that condition of our humanity, that we should be born to love and then we must necessarily lose that love or be lost to it.
Even as a clergyman, and a Christian, I can’t say I fully get it, understand it enough to embrace this phenomenon in my heart. I feel twinges of outrage, a pang of injustice as if God were behaving like what we as kids used to call, an ‘Indian giver.’ What He gives me I find out isn’t for keeps; in time He’ll reclaim it without even consulting me. I suspect my attitude comes from regarding life the way so many of us Americans regard our blessings: I treat life as an entitlement rather than a gift.
The way it appears now, of the two of us, I will die first. I feel guilty about it. It’s irrational; how can I be held responsible for something I have no control over. Isn’t the cruelty of our losses enough? I won’t just die, but cause others to suffer as a result. I suppose that’s better (for me, anyway) than dying and no one caring a whit. In my world view I cannot make these matters come out even. They’ll likely be resolved in the heart, not the head.I can’t quite find the words to express just how this scenario leaves me feeling. What is it like not being here, of being gone? It makes me feel hollow. Sometimes, I just weep because it’s a heart matter. Tears are the language of the heart and they don’t explain things clearly. It take time to catch on.
That’s about the only unambiguous statement I can make. Tears are the heart speaking something to me. Both Jo and I weep as we struggle to imagine anything that might take the bitter edge of this reality and soften it some. Paradoxically, just talking and weeping seems to help. It may seem counter-intuitive to talk about the things you and I might fear and dread most, but it doesn’t work that way. It causes more pain when such heart matters are driven underground and treated as a taboo. It will soon create intolerable awkwardness and unease between couples and family members. Everybody feels they must pretend.
We’re in that tenuous and tender time when we are preparing to let each other go.
My mother-in law had a saying I’d not heard before. In getting ready for a trip, she’d say “I’m feeling journey proud.” She described how she’d find herself fretting about all the details the trip involved: letting people know she was gone; when she’d be back; who’d get the mail; was the house in proper order; who’d get the package due to come while she was away; turn the heat down – those endless details that arise prior to traveling.
If I’m about to take a journey from which I’m not returning. Does that up the ante, or not? Does that change what is necessary to do, how I need to spend my limited time fussing about this and that?
The answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’ unless I want to incur the anger of spouse and children at a time when they should be celebrating my life. Should I not attend to these details, I’ll be remembered, alright, and for a long time, too: until my heirs can tell the MVA just who actually holds the title to my car, and finally straighten out the rat’s nest that my credit cards and insurance policies will create upon my death –– yes, my kin will remember me, but not as I might have wished.
As I write this, I am feeling strangely restless, fatigued. Of course, I think to myself, it’s my blood count; the numbers are down. But, no, they are holding and in fact are good. I worry and then it comes to me as clearly as the pen in my hand with which I’m writing this draft. To my shame, right now I am not saddened by the impending separation from my spouse, children and other loved ones. I am grieving my separation from me, the person I knew (mostly) and loved alternately for 87 years. He will simply be no more. I have no way to comprehend this. If I leave my family, they will continue to be. They will walk the paths we walked and although I will not be there, they will. I’m fatigued because I feel sorry for myself. It’s an odd kind of feeling since in this case, there’d be no “myself” to feel sorry for. I can imagine no analogy, no metaphor that helps me digest this thought. I come up with zip, as they say.
I admire the great essayist Montaigne. He was a wily and wise old fox who, in weighty matters, never patronized us with pious clichés or heady, philosophical excursions. About our death he said this: “…without a doubt the most noteworthy action of human life…people do not easily believe that they have reached that point . . . there is no place where deception of hope deludes us more.” In short, he is saying no one really believes he’s going to die. Why? Montaigne believes “it’s because we set too much importance on ourselves.”
It’s sobering to consider that even as my faculties go one by one, my wits fragment and my other organs and sensibilities diminish, in the face of mortality’s apparent injustice, my ego always remains righteous and ready to advocate for my life and protest against my mortality.
As much as I might sympathize with my ego, I still wouldn’t trust its judgement for a minute. My heart would handle things more wisely.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.