The unavoidable lesson.
December 23, 2012 § 8 Comments
Hugging their notebooks, they swarmed the tables, ready for my writing workshop–except for the class that had just attended a funeral.
The class hamster had died.
The children were grief stricken. Shoulders shaking they gasped for breath as they cried.
“How long have you had your hamster?” I asked.
“A long, long time,” a boy moaned. “Since the beginning of fourth grade.”
Amazed at their unrestrained sorrow I realized that they had probably just attended their first funeral–and that I had become an old hand at death.
But like them, I began as an immortal novice in a world without end.
My first cold shiver at the thought of death was for my parents. If they were late picking me up I would stand on the wintery sidewalk in front of catechism or piano lesson and know that they were dead. I’d instantly go back to the oblivious present, thinking about homework and a snack as the station wagon rolled up.
I didn’t imagine my own death until one day when I was about fifteen, I did. It was as if I walked into a wall that had always been there. I was going to die.
Being young did not protect me. The young were struck by lightning, hit by cars, they contracted rare, incurable diseases—and they died.
I traveled through the next week, startled and intensely afraid.
Watching my friends I realized, they don’t know. If they knew they wouldn’t worry about their hair or what he said she said.
They too would be slammed with the futility of attempting anything, planning anything.
The feeling subsided as I let myself be distracted by what he said she said and the day-to-day enterprise called life, but the non-negotiable condition, death, remained.
I was going to die, and so was everyone I loved.
This truth was a grain of sand that, through irritation, gradually created a pearl; not a smooth and perfect one, but one that was more comfortable than the constant irritation of coping with something that seemed wrong and out of place.
Over time I came to understand, death belongs. It is the shadow cast by life.
I watched death come to my mother after a series of strokes had annihilated her essential self, a kindness that allowed us to remember her as she had always been. I watched my father accept death. Being a scientist he was curious. Being human he hoped to see my mother again. The years without her had been years spent in the waiting room.
I am not easy with death, but it has been a long time since it has blind-sided me. Then, just before the holidays, twenty children were murdered in Newtown, Connecticut.
I saw the photos of the young victims, a parade of smiling faces with gappy front teeth, and imagined them as the adults they will never get to be.
Suddenly, I was fifteen again, the finality of death recent news, news I had no way to understand or survive.