This morning, I was en route to a funeral, when the man driving the cab asked, “Going to a wedding?”
I said, “No." And then I told him the circumstances of the funeral, to which he replied, “Don’t say that. Don’t say that.”
I will spare you the details—not only is the story heartbreaking, but it’s not mine to tell. Plus, the cab driver had a point. There’s enough devastation in our world at the moment.
Last month, I had been with a family member at her cancer treatment, when I ran into an old friend, who was outside the hospital, talking on her phone. Later, I learned that my friend was there because her husband had suddenly become sick—very sick. I had flashes of their wedding five years earlier, the two of them looking like movie stars. (This is not an exaggeration—they are both incredibly attractive, an extension, of course, of their kind hearts.) My heart broke for them, but, also, it was already broken.
The next day, I learned about the freak death of someone with whom I’d only had a passing connection. I couldn’t fathom what his family was going through. I also wondered why mortality had become such a loud theme.
Tired, I decided to take a break. I went to get chicken curry soup and eat it on the steps of my favorite neighborhood church. I’ve sat there many an afternoon, relaxing, watching the passersby, looking at the open sky. As I ate my soup, a man in a grim reaper costume, walking by, turned to me and said, “God bless you.”
This was two weeks before Halloween. So there was no good reason for anyone to be wearing a grim reaper costume. And I hadn’t sneezed or said a word, so also no good reason for him to address me. A friend later said, “Well, it could have been worse—at least he was pleasant.”
I have to admit: it was kind of funny. I was so freaked out, i.e. why can’t you let me eat my chicken curry soup in peace, Grim Reaper?
But it did get me thinking. What is the blessing, originating from God or elsewhere, of knowing mortality?
When I was in college, I was heartened by a book my theology teacher had assigned, The Denial of Death. I remember feeling peace as I digested Becker’s words—most of us, in fact, spend our days avoiding the fact that "none of us get out of here alive,” as one of my favorite memoir clients likes to say. In Becker's words, I found relief, expansion. Plain truth can really take the edge off.
That same year, I was spending a leisurely Saturday afternoon at a friend’s house. A group of us were on the back deck, having brunch and talking about nothing of import, when we heard gun shots. Close gun shots. Then we heard screaming. Someone called the police. Sirens started to blare. Cops and EMTs came in short order. We hung over the edge of the deck, watching as a man was carried out of the house next door on a stretcher. He had broken into the house of the elderly man next door, who pulled out a gun and shot him. Moments later, the elderly man emerged, surrounded by police and wrapped in a blanket. He was horrified, crying, rambling. Even before this tragedy, he might have been mentally impaired.
We were young, and stupefied. It was awful. No one could say a word, until I heard, “Ready. Go!”
I looked up to see that four sorority pledges, with satin bows in their hair, wearing the shortest shorts I’ve ever seen, had appeared on the deck. Having no idea what just happened, they smiled wide and launched into a rather chipper song. Kappa kappa kappa gamma, I’m so happy that I am a…
No one stopped them. They had come, presumably, because one of the people who lived at the house was in a fraternity affiliated with their group—this was a dare for the sisterhood. No one had the heart to say, “Um, bad timing. Someone just died.” So we stood awkwardly, listening, maybe even offering an affirmative nod. No one else needed to feel as bad as we already did.
After, maybe someone said, “Great” or "Thanks.” Or something. Someone had to say something. I just know it wasn’t me.
I have no idea what it means to be blessed by the grim reaper. Pollyanna logic might say that we should appreciate every moment, that life is precious. Et cetera, et cetera. But lately, I don’t have those kind of words. Of course life—even in its most brutal moments--is precious. But what else?
The question of mortality is brings up the issue of control—and how little of it we have, in the grand scheme of things. While we may not be able to engineer worst case scenarios from happening or always get our way, we can, at the very least, be authentic—true to our desires and opinions—moment to moment. That has to add up to something.
Being real—like, really real—is not always easy, or welcome. Year ago, I bought a copy of Chelsea Handler’s memoir, My Horizontal Life, on my lunch break. Five pages in, I decided to return it. When the cashier took the book from me, he said, “Any reason for the return?” Leaning on the counter, I spaced out for a minute, trying to come up with something polite, when I finally blurted, “I hate it.”
“Well, then. Wouldn’t want you owning a book you hate,” he said, laughing.
It was a small moment, but meaningful nonetheless.
Thinking about mortality recently has had a zen-like effect on my consciousness. It’s not to say that I don’t get down about it. I do. But I also know that all we have is our moment to moment existence—yes, appreciate the grand and granular aspects of your life, but appreciate them through the lens that is distinctly yours, seeing the world the way that you (and maybe only you) see it. I hope I don’t have an occasion to express “hate” again for anything anytime soon, but whatever I find myself feeling—whether it’s displeasure, bliss, pain, whatever—I would like to have the courage to simply say so. (This came naturally to me as a child, it seems.) It’s not the accuracy of the assessment or opinion itself that really holds water anyway. It’s the desire to be real. That is how we (or at least I) can say, “L’chaim.”