In the Face of Death

Today is my brother Fred’s birthday and we are in Florida to help him celebrate.  Fred and I have always been in sync despite a gaping age difference.  We haven’t always seen eye to eye – he willing served in Viet Nam while I was a peace activist at home.  I was enraged by the Reagan-Bush bumper sticker he proudly sported on his car.  Despite significant reasons for us not to even like each other, ours has always been a tight bond we both cherish.  Part of our fun every February 16 is that Fred’s birthday is my half-birthday.  We playfully mark the coincidence, delighting in this quirk of fate, as yet another cosmic indicator of a fraternal connection that was destined to be by powers more gracious than either of us.

We are now getting older and the evidence is harder to disguise or ignore.  In recent years I have to admit to a growing ambivalence about yielding to this “second” birthday any personal significance.  It marks a subtle threshold reminding me that I am now gently sliding closer to the next numerical indicator and farther from a receding benchmark — as of today, I am closer to 64 than 63.  Truthfully, I am not entirely sure how I feel about this imposing reality!

Today seems particularly poignant.  Readers of my post two days ago know of the death of a significant teacher.  A couple months ago we suddenly lost a dear friend at 58 to a rare auto-immune hepatitis.  Tomorrow we would be at the funeral for the mother of a dear friend and colleague if we were not in Florida.  Next Saturday we will be back in town for the memorial service of a longtime friend who died suddenly at age 50.  Another brother in Nebraska reported on the funeral of our cousin Dennis which occurred day before yesterday.  A harsh reality is there will be no birthday greetings from the five of nine siblings who have, as the euphemism goes, “gone before us.” Celebrating Fred’s birthday today seems all the more meaningful, welcome and appropriate because we know it could be otherwise.

The author of Ecclesiastes captures familiar wisdom: “There is a time for every purpose under heaven… a time to live and a time to die.”  When younger, I understood this to be two distinct options, alternating phases or discrete moments.  Now I know this reality is not an “either/or” proposition.  The wisdom of our great faith traditions, the quiet confidence with which true elders mark their days, is much more supple and resilient.  Slowly, even reluctantly, we come – through the “kneading” process of many years – to embrace our lives as an odd and crazy mixture of “both/and.”

How, then, are we to live?  How are we to memorialize loved ones who have gone on ahead of us? How are we to celebrate this and all birthdays?  No one expresses it better than Mary Oliver in one of my favorite poems:

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.


Poem by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press).

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