On death and living

Sunset Carbon County

Perhaps it’s inevitable that I think about death in April, what with Dad’s death and birth days straddled a couple weeks each side of tax day. Dad passed five years ago and Mom followed three years later.

I wasn’t at Dad’s bedside when his soul departed. I was there with Mom when she let go, holding her hand, praying for her, and telling her of my love for her. It’s my only experience being present when a person dies. It had an oddly peaceful feeling to it as her body shut down and she finally relaxed into not living. Mom had an abiding faith in an everlasting heaven of the evangelical Christian model. She wasn’t ready to go but when it came it’s as if she simply gave in to her destiny and made the step toward heaven.

Friends and former military colleagues of mine have died violently instead of being able to pass gently from this life. They died in war, terrorist attacks, airplane crashes, and public shootings. I wonder if one’s soul, when passing from this life to the next, is scarred for eternity based on the method in which it departs. Maybe the way we die has no bearing on what comes next.

I don’t fear death. Sometimes I fear dying because it seems there are so many ways to die. I don’t know what’s on the other side. I used to care and think it was an evangelical Christian heaven but I’ve walked away from that world view. These days I imagine my body and soul will live on as star dust in this universe. I don’t know what that looks like but it seems logical, maybe even scientific, to think of dying as simply a transition from a living status to a nonliving status.  I see it as my body and soul living on as ash and dust, an integral part of a universe moving through time.

Pianist and writer Jonathan Biss, writing in “Coda,” talks about how at thirteen he first “wondered what it might be like to die.“ The occasion was his first encounter with Beethoven’s last of thirty-two piano sonatas, Sonata Opus 111. Biss eloquently explains the music, his reaction to it, and the unexpected ending as Beethoven ended the sonata with final breaths, a death of sorts. The Biss essay made me think deeper about how we die. It also made me think about how we live, as the essay discussed the late works of the masters, those pieces composed in the final years of life. The essay, besides being a thoughtful and beautiful piece on music, provoked hope and reinforced my thought that I’m not afraid of death.

The bigger question for me, it seems, is whether I fear life and living. Actual living has enough heaven and hell for a lifetime. Why waste my time fretting about eternity when I’m faced daily with decisions about how to live now? I’ve found myself in circumstances I didn’t choose, and in others that came about because of choices I made. In all cases, I can set aside fears and frustrations and live in the moment with intention and joy or I can give in to despair and complaining. I can create my own heaven or hell on earth inside whatever current condition envelopes me.

I think the word “create” in the prior sentence is key. We’re creative beings, and perhaps that’s why I yearn to write or make photographs or do things that lift my soul above the mundane of this life; to a plane where attempting to create something of beauty causes my soul to align with the better parts of the universe.

I don’t typically dwell too long at this time of year on death and dying. It’s helpful to ponder the question but I have too much living ahead of me (whether for a day or decades) to wallow in death’s shadow. I’m alive, and I have words to mine and pictures to form and books to read and music to absorb.

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