If I Should Die Before I Wake…

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about letting go. There are many things that we have to let go of – the past, our youth, our mistakes – but the one I didn’t mention, that seldom gets mentioned, is death. Having just heard Mr. Rogers (in the body of Tom Hanks) telling me that there is nothing about life that is not manageable if it can be talked about, maybe it’s time to talk about death. (Highly recommend the movie.)

Early religions – Judaism for example and the Greeks – relegated the dead  to a shadowy place which did not seem very pleasant. The Greeks had Hades and its “shades.” (Remember Aeneas’s trip to the underworld?)  The Old Testament Sheol was held to be a still and dark place where souls – good and bad – went after death.

Eventually there was some belief in a more substantial afterlife –it was the Pharisees who believed in resurrection (but not necessarily of the body) and the Sadducees who did not. Paul had been a Pharisee so he was already half way there when he was struck by the light and began to preach the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Of course, hand in hand with the possibility of heaven came the threat of hell. In Buddhism and Hinduism, souls were reborn again and again until they got it right. Interestingly enough, the goal for Buddhists is nirvana or extinction, non-returning, while the goal for Christians is eternal life. In all cases, however, death is a threshold to be gotten over. And that threshold is constantly at the end of our horizon whether we acknowledge it or not.

In Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death (also highly recommended), the author discusses the way we all deal with death. Some of us believe (or try to believe) in an afterlife. Some of us think that our lives will live on in our deeds, a ripple effect (think of Fred Rogers), some that our projects will live on after us (our immortality projects), and some that we will live on in our posterity, our children and grandchildren. And some of us think all of the above, depending on the circumstances at the moment.

And some of us just keep hoping it will be otherwise – that medical technology will somehow solve the problem before our time has come. There is apparently a thriving business in this aspiration in Silicon Valley.

I thought about death as a child. Every bedtime ended with this prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.

This was followed by a list of “God blesses,” which always included members of the immediate family, Nana and Papa, and sometimes visiting friends or beloved pets or teachers. But the line, “if I should die before I wake,” left this particular child with the specter of departing sometime before the oatmeal was ready in the morning. Think about that. Adults may often wake in the middle of the night thinking about their own extinction (a la Larkin’s “Aubade”), but what did it mean for every child in a culture (this was not something my parents invented) to end every day with a reminder of their mortality? And did I believe that I would go to heaven if I did die before morning? Somehow, I think I did. But it is harder now.

Jung, among other, talks about the therapeutic value of a belief in an afterlife. Yes. But the key word there is belief. That is one way to cope. Another is acceptance of death as part of life, as necessary to life, as what gives shape to life. There is an article in last week’s New Yorker by the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who is living with a diagnosis of “rampant” lung cancer. He is going to die before long, but has had a chance to reflect on it for those of us who think we won’t die “before long” and this is what he recommends: “Take death for a walk in your minds, folks. Either you’ll be glad you did or, keeling over suddenly, you won’t be out anything.”

Whatever method we choose, death has more power when we don’t face it in one way or another. Only then can we get on with it. Shakespeare said it the best:

So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

One more thing – this is the season of Old Father Time who is pushed out of the way by the Baby New Year. I have written on these symbols before, but it is worth noting on the eve of a new decade that the year may become young, but we will not. Let us keep this truth in mind (and here we are facing facts again!) as we watch the celebrations and frame our resolutions. Let us resolve to live within our own time. We can chuckle at the baby new year just as we delight in our grandchildren; but we are in a different time of life. And I, for one, am often glad of it. I think of the words of Don Mclean’s “Wonderful Baby”:

Wonderful baby nothin’ but new,
The world has gone crazy, I’m glad I’m not you.
At the beginning or is it the end?
It goes in and comes out and starts over again.

The story for this week, “A Balm in Gilead,” is about accepting the ending of things (or not). Here’s to the New Year, and may it be full of meaning, acceptance, and peace.

Short Benediction for W. S. Merwin

The poet W. S. Merwin died yesterday at the age of ninety-one.   My favorite Merwin lines come from his poem “Air” :

This must be what I wanted to be doing,
Walking at night between the two deserts,
Singing.

Think about it.  The desert we come from and the desert we are headed for.  Meanwhile, sing.

Poets are influenced by other poets, and when I read “Air” (written in 1963), I hear an earlier poem (1895) by Stephen Crane:

I walked in a desert.
And I cried,
“Ah, God, take me from this place!”
A voice said, “It is no desert.”
I cried, “Well, But —
The sand, the heat, the vacant horizon.”
A voice said, “It is no desert.”

This, by the way, was from Crane book of poetry The Black Riders,  which the poet said he liked far more than his very successful novel, The Red Badge of Courage.

But this is a homage to Merwin, who actually wrote a poem called “For the Anniversary of My Death“:

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

If you were to write a poem or a letter to commemorate the anniversary of your death, what would you say?  Here is another example from Frost’s “A Lesson for Today“:

I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

And then there is this from Stevenson’s “Requiem“:

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Go back and read Merwin and then think about the anniversary of your own death, the epitaph for your stone, a summary of your life.  But please read Merwin, who gave us words to help us sing between the deserts.