My friend said to me not long ago something that got me thinking about death, specifically about the way that love and other relationships are affected by it. What I was thinking about was, mainly, that until any of us dies, we not only cannot but perhaps should not be perfect; if it were possible, what would be the point of continuing? I hear people talking, often enough, about how there might be people alive today who will live to be 150 years old, perhaps even twice that, and my immediate reaction is Why?! Is there really so much important stuff any one of us is going to accomplish in two or three of our current life-spans that we ought to crave living several lifetimes?
I certainly have no desire to live extra long if it means that I will have to get another job or six in order to afford it, and retire, if I’m lucky, when I’m 215 years old. Or if it means that I outlive whole swaths of people I have liked or loved or admired and have to struggle to make friends over and over again. Or, most especially, if it means that my slow-aging compatriots and I live in a world full of people who can survive all sorts of diseases and previously life-threatening injuries, but not necessarily with a very desirable quality of life, or worse yet, we exist like crammed masses of crawling and buzzing insects in an ever-decreasing amount of space relative to our numbers, scrabbling and battling for resources that couldn’t possibly expand to enrich all of us, let alone with any sort of fair distribution or generosity. If the current chatter ever gets a whole lot more encouraging about the long-lifers spending equal attention and energy on making the world more peaceable and the people in it healthier, kinder, happier, more generous, and a whole lot wiser, then I might consider living “forever” of greater interest.
My friend’s comment also prodded me to think about how death has affected my own life and the relationships within it. To revisit the many what-ifs about whether I could be better than I am, had I cherished and understood my long-gone relatives and friends more wisely and profoundly. About whether I can still garner the strength and intelligence to improve if I pay attention to the lessons I did learn, or maybe can still learn, from them. Certainly, I have wondered enough times what my life’s sojourn, and I within it, would have looked like if various loved ones had lived longer, not to mention how different the whole world could have been. Something in me always eventually rebels at that thought, however sorrowfully, for there is a large part of me, too, that knows how easily I become fixed in my thinking about even living persons I know and forget to reevaluate our relationships, to renew my commitment to them. And I know very well that those who have died remain perpetually frozen ever after in the way that I perceived them and our living interactions. It’s so much easier to be a devil or a saint when you’ve ceased living and can never again do or be anything new to change the balance of the known and the imagined.
And this path of contemplation returns me, of course, to wondering whether it will matter especially to anyone else that I did exist. I have no children to carry on my genes in a direct line, for better or worse. Most of the people who fill my days, no matter how valued in the present time, will continue on their life paths and I on mine, and the majority of us will lose contact and even forget each other, and that is natural enough and no terrible thing, either. But when my dust rejoins the remaining carbon of this known planet, will it matter?
And will I live in memory as devil or saint, or simply and satisfyingly, as an ordinary mortal being, fixed, perhaps, in the amber of another person’s memory just as he or she knew me and never more or less? I can’t answer. I don’t need to answer. I’ll go the way of all living and dying things. I will mingle my dust with all of my fellows’, and with everyone who has gone before or after us, and if any spirit lingers on, may it be—for all of us—the best that is remembered, and the rest forgotten and trodden into our survivors’ own life paths, going wherever they, in turn, may go. If the mountains of our remains raise them up any higher, then so much the better that we both lived and died.
Enfold Me in the Green
Enfold me in the green breast of the earth
And gently speak my name with love once more,
Then turn and take your way to what’s before
You now, that all the world will know your worth
As I was blessed to know it in my time—
That hand, unstinting in its tender care,
The scent of rain around you everywhere,
Your slightest whisper in my ear sublime—
That now you’ll speak to other waiting ears.
For now I sleep; let earth be the embrace
To keep me kindly in my newer place
While yours will others bless in coming years.
I thank you, now I need no more the sun
That shall be yours until your day is done.