Facing Frailty (Death)


From a sequence of images on aging by Marilylle Soveran

Dying sucks. And saying, “dying sucks” is a way of trivializing my terror. Because I am really, really afraid of dying. Also, I would prefer for all my loved ones to continue to live. I recognize that this goes against the order of the world we live in. I know I ought to be comforted by the idea that the end of this life doesn’t mean the end of all life, but this is the only life I know.

Talk of heaven doesn’t make me feel better. Not that I don’t believe in it, but I just don’t get it. Who wants gold streets when I have the dirty, real streets of this world? My son’s milky breath, the fatigue and intimacy at the end of a long day, fresh-baked bread, snow—I want it all.

Today I try to face frailty—the fact of death—by thinking through some smarter people’s reflections on living and dying. So here goes.

“That is simply what happened. The main thing was being alive. That was the main thing.” –Rilke, from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

What I love about this quotation is how it reflects the kind of stuttering sense of urgency I feel about living. It’s the main thing, the main thing, the only thing, the only thing I can imagine.

“We keep waking from a dream we can’t recall, looking around in surprise, and lapsing back, for years on end. All I want to do is stay awake…” –Annie Dillard, “The Present,” from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Dillard is talking about being present to the world around us, about really taking it in rather than being washed along without noticing. But I want to stay awake—alive—as long as I can. Liam, our little boy, cries big boy tears now, big, fat, and salty. I know they’re salty because I’ve tasted them. His smiles go straight to my heart. I want to be awake to all this for a long time.

“There is the sleep that demands I lie down/ and be fitted to the dark that comes upon me/ like another skin in which I shall never be found,/ out of which I shall never appear.” –Mark Strand, “The Sleep”

Darkness as death. Death as burrowing into the skin of the earth. Death as disappearance. These are not comforting images. They are images I’ve tried to face. They are images that terrify me. Could heaven be darkness as peace? Or light through the stillness and darkness of whatever radical thing that it is that’s so different from being alive? I don’t get it. But I know that pearly gates and gold streets can’t possibly be all.

“Loss turned you to yourself by bankrupting all the usual distractions.” –Glen Duncan, Death of an Ordinary Man

When people we love die, something opens up inside us. This is scary. It’s also an opportunity. Note to self: do not tweet or text or otherwise fritter away this opportunity.

“And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier” –Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

“Song of Myself” is one of the most beautiful affirmations of life in this world. So I’m going to hold onto the idea, with Whitman, that life out of this world is different and luckier than what I can imagine.


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