Sunday, April 18, 2010

A long ramble

Our read-aloud at the moment is Stout-Hearted Seven. It's about the Sager children, who were orphaned on the Oregon Trail in the mid-1800s. It's not a particularly well-written book, but it does give a sense of what life was like traveling west. Yesterday we got to the chapter where the mother dies of trail fever.

"I don't like this! Stop!" squirmed Little Guy.
"This makes me think about if you die! I don't want you to die!" wailed Snuggler.

I remember lying in bed one night at about age ten, realizing that some day my parents would die. I sobbed for a while, then I distracted myself, then approached the grief again, then backed away. It fascinated me that there are painful truths in the background of our lives all the time, things we don't approach on a daily basis because we couldn't function if we did.

Death is one of those truths.I don't talk a whole lot about death with my kids, but I don't avoid talking about it, either. I know a lot of parents who inwardly panic when their kids ask about dying. I suppose that's because a lot of people aren't sure what to say, and aren't sure what they believe. Or maybe it's because we don't want to let our children know the dirty little secret that some aspects of life hurt. But the less we talk about death with our kids, the more of a shock it becomes when we (and they) have to face it.

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In the abstract, death it isn't so bad. We're inured to blowing people up in movies and zapping them on video games and verifiably killing them from miles away in real life with high-tech equipment. Surrounded by virtual (or seemingly virtual) death, we're unaccustomed to the real thing up close.

We don't like real death. I've a hunch we're far worse at dealing with it than our grandparents were, or even our parents. All those old, gray family stories of accidents on the farm and babies (and mothers) who died in childbirth and long-ago uncles who met their end in The War were tragedies in Technicolor for the people who survived. If you knew your great-grandma, she probably lived through the flu of 1918, which killed more people in a year than the Bubonic Plague (at its worst killed) in four. A hundred years ago, people were more familiar with death than we are.

A lot of people today are petrified of death. I think this is related to the modern American assumptions that a) we're in control of our lives, and b) we're entitled to a pain-free, suffering-free life. We get annoyed when things aren't easily fixable. We are oriented toward gain, and dismissive of loss. We live in a world of disposable contacts, disposable diapers, and disposable dishes, and have grown accustomed to tossing things out without any sense of attachment. Whatever we do lose is usually replaceable. Loss that is painful is not part of our daily experience. We are rich.

There is one thing the world tells us is non-disposable: our desires. We're bombarded with messages that urge us to believe life is all about us. It's all about what we want, and dream, and hope. The problem is that death doesn't care what we want. Death strips us of the illusion that we are in control. It hurts.

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Andrew's father died four days after Eldest was born.The juxtaposition of blossoming new life and raw, wrinkled death was intense. I couldn't help but think how physical these two landmarks of life are. I'd never been so aware of bodies before: mine, my baby's, my father-in-law's.

A baby's body is a tiny miracle: amazing toes, eyes that work and fingers that grasp. We are overwhelmed and astonished, although we ourselves have inhabited the same kind of machine all our days. We see that physical miracle unravel with age. Yet the real miracle is that life exists at all, that we are given the gift of days to treasure and joy to give.

So I'd argue that we aren't here on this earth just for our own satisfaction. It's not all about us. I think back on the times when someone said something that changed my life for the better, and almost all of them have one thing in common. The person who changed my life probably doesn't  even remember having done it. That informs how I live my life.

This is what I think about death: Aim to live generously. Give of yourself freely. Do the right thing every chance you get. A lot of what we do, and how we change the world, happens where we can't see it and we'll never know it made a difference. Fill your life with thoughtfulness, and you will have a full life... and so will the people around you. When life is full, the prospect of death is a lot less scary.

1 comment:

  1. Yes. Embrace life and don't complain about the weather.