Thursday, October 25, 2007

Death, the Great Teacher

We saw the season turn in Central Texas this week. Saw the rain come, and the wind, and though the rain ended, the wind remained and ever since it has been cool, much cooler than last week.

And there is a different quality to the sunlight now. It is gentler, mellower, with shadows falling somber on the leaf-strewn streets, and the sky cloudless and blue. And, in the evening, sunsets blaze, as summer goes down in flames.

It was the summer that almost wasn’t—the summer delayed by a spring that never seemed to end …

April showers continued into May, then into June, then into the first part of July, ending the drought, making the countryside lush, making it beautiful, but also causing floods and keeping Texas cooler than usual for that time of year.

Spring 2007, wet and green, dark and lush, beautiful and deadly …

I remember how the wind and rain tore sideways through Dallas the night I stood by my father’s bedside and he gripped my hand tighter to let me know he understood. Outside, lightning flashed on the tossing trees and hailstones tapped on the window. The hospital switched to generator power …

And wouldn’t you know the saddest of mornings would also be the most beautiful … driving back to the hospital after the nurse called to tell us the time was near … my mother was with me, we rode in stricken silence … there were wildflowers on the prairie and fog in the low places golden in the sun, steaming tendrils of fog, golden all golden … golden fog on the verdant earth … reminiscent of so many other mornings … delivering papers with my father or leaving early for a fishing trip, talking, laughing … I was so much younger then, and he was younger than I am now … memories now, just mental snapshots, pictures of another time, a time now lost …

I did not understand death before he died, and now that he has died I find that I … still do not understand it. But I understand life better, I think. Now I see, as never before, how much our lives, in every respect, are defined by death.

Its mystery haunts our dwindling days. The bereavements we suffer at its cold hands leave us bitter. Its impartiality confounds us. Its certainty and finality fill us with dread.

Yet, despite the horror and the sorrow, there are times—times when we find ourselves down or desperate, or suffering, or see someone we love who is suffering—times, such times when we see death as a mercy. But mostly we see death as cruel. And, as the years pass with astonishing swiftness, we come to realize just how short life truly is, and weep at sunset—weep, then glory in the dawn.

Death is the great teacher. It teaches us compassion and the value of life—if we are wise, that is. If we are foolish, we deny death and learn nothing—or worse, learn the wrong lesson and come to worship darkness. All of us, at one time or another, are foolish, to a greater or lesser degree. The hope is that, in the end, we become mostly wise.

That is all I understand of death, how it relates to the living. I do not understand death itself, by which I mean how it relates to the dead, or those we call the dead. They may not be dead at all. Free of body and time, they may be more alive than you or I.

But can I say I know this? Can I speak with authority? No, I can only say that this is what I believe.

I believe it in part because of dreams I had after my father died. But I do not know. How can I know? I live in the world of the living, thus cannot know death. Only the dead know death. To the living, it must remain a mystery and haunt our dwindling days.

The spring that never seemed to end finally came to an end. Sunlight sparkled on the water when I swam in the mornings and the clouds above, like great white buffalo, roamed the summer sky. Summer came at last, but it was short and sweet, and now it is going down in flames, and the late-night winds whisper of winter.