Yesterday was my last Christmas. For any number of reasons, there are millions of people worldwide who can make the same claim. There is really nothing new or distinctive in such a statement except perhaps for the persons making it. For me, the matter gets more complicated, or at least it feels that way.
It’s common enough to hear people say offhandedly, ‘of course, we’ll die someday.’ It’s unlikely that you or I will ever hear someone say ‘I have a couple of months’ in the same casual way. The confidence with which we might make such a declaration decreases exponentially as its proximity increases. It’s just the way we are. And then when any collective matter becomes a personal reality, it intensifies its emotional import and assumes a power over us that it never had before.
My mortality is both a collective reality, that is, it belongs to all human beings, and it’s also an individual one. It’s a chapter in our story that each of us will engage personally. From my experience, being told I have just so much time left devastated me, but particularly I recall feeling desperately lonely. At first, I thought this an odd reaction considering the matter at hand. If human beings have anything in common at all, it certainly would be the mortality that we all share. Shouldn’t that mitigate some of the loneliness?
So why should I have this lonely feeling when I’m preparing to do what we’re all doing, albeit at different times? Even as I write this, people are dying in voluminous numbers during this pandemic. The numbers alone should offer some of the comforts of camaraderie, the kind of emotional support shared experiences, even painful ones, often afford us.
I wonder now, whether the same issue that plagues many of us today, as we engage our lives during this time of Covid and now the Omicron variant, also haunts us when we must face mortality. I’m thinking of those forces keeping us from being close to each other, either physically or emotionally especially when we need one another the most. For persons with leukemia and others living with mal-functioning immune systems, the pandemic experience becomes a similar one –– the world we inhabited, once welcoming, turns dangerous. Life can be a lonely business.
One of the peculiarities of the present epidemic is how it turns people that we love the most into potential danger; the easy give-and-take between friends and family has been replaced by anxiety and caution. Being close physically, particularly touching each other are the basic means for any expression of love and friendship. What had once been normative social behavior, has become risky, and in some cases, lethal. The distances between us have widened as never before. That’s a lonely business, too.
This came home to me recently as I was having coffee with a friend. He has been suffering with cancer for at least three years and is still in active treatment. While he has no assigned timeline, his future remains very uncertain. He has walked for a long time through the valley of the shadow of death. I asked him when or if he prays, what concern does the prayer address particularly.
“Courage,” he replied in a heartbeat.
While we were talking it over, he reached for his wrist. He removed a rubber-like wrist band and tossed it to me. It was yellow (ironically). The word courage had been written over it. I don’t know whether he intended me to keep it or not. I instinctively placed it on my wrist as we talked as if it were my own. Having forgotten it was there. When I left his house, I found I was still wearing it.
We talked at some length. We explored the experience of feeling sustained and about the loneliness as well. He was especially clear about having come to recognize how the people in his life –– ‘connections’ as he put it –– have sustained his courage. He is increasingly aware how these people are there and the importance in his life in knowing they care. That changes suffering’s equation dramatically.
As I thought about it, I imagined myself as one of the threads woven into the small, beautiful oriental rug that always lies at the foot of my chair. The stunning complexities of its design (and strength, I’d add) result from countless threads, many different, that the weaver has incorporated in its design. In short, whether living or dying, you and I are never alone because each one of us is but one thread in an entire tapestry.
I also recalled the story of the onion. It’s substantially a product of layers, one wrapped around the other. In my lifetime, the people who have influenced me and who influence me now, are like those layers; they constitute as much a part of the whole person that I am in the process of evolving, as the small core that has always existed at my center.
An incidental intelligence regarding onions: “Onions form the bedrock of our cooking –– cooked onions give dishes a rich and a subtle sweetness — you don’t always know onions are in the dish, but if they weren’t, you’d definitely miss them.”
I’d like to mention here how deeply grateful Jo and I are for those friends and readers who have let us know they have wrapped their hearts around us during our present walk. You have taken time in various ways to let us know we are not alone. It’s helped soften the loneliness.
If you were not there, we’d definitely miss you.
NB: I wear the bracelet all the time.
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.