The first time I remember thinking about something “ending” me was when I was quite young and my mother had put to bed; directly above me, I noticed a large crack in the ceiling. I remember laying there, feeling helpless and sure sure that it was just waiting until dark, so it could open up and quietly swallow me whole. I remember most of all feeling not quite fear, but deep sadness and resignation that my mother would come in the next morning and not ever know where I had gone.
The truly strange thing about this memory for me is the likely age of my life when it would have happened. I told this memory to my mother as an adult and she remarked that there was in fact a cracked ceiling above my bed, but only when we lived in Pennsylvania; we lived there for the first six months of my life, and then we moved to California. The crack was above my crib. It’s hard to believe that I remember anything at all from the first six months of my life, let alone a concept as complex as dying or nonexistence, but there it is. It’s a sobering idea to suggest that someone under a year of age can have these thoughts unspoken – perhaps we all do. I can’t explain the memory any other way.
I suppose that would be the first recollection I have of death. The next clear memory is from when I was in third grade. A second grader at our school had played in a railroad yard, accidentally fallen into a grain car, and suffocated. Because I went to a Catholic elementary school, the funeral was during school hours and the entire school walked up single file, grade by grade, child by child, to pass the open coffin and give silent condolences to the family.
I remember standing in the church aisle looking down at my scuffed white oxfords, being afraid of what I would see when I looked up; then I remember the strangeness of seeing his familiar face so calm, so close and still, as intimate as though he was sleeping. If I close my eyes, I can still see him, fifty years later, blonde lashes, auburn hair against the white satin. I remember his freckles and the way his hair was slicked back in a way he never wore it in life. To find myself at age eight, facing him six inches away and not being frightened after all was probably the most astonishing part that cemented it to memory.
I have, of course, seen death since. My grandparents, my parents, a friend or two, my pets, coworkers, neighbors, parishioners. Car accidents that I’ve lived through, astonished for being so little damaged myself in a totaled car. Circumstances in which, had I been there a few minutes earlier or later, I would not be writing now. I’ve sung at many a funeral and listened to my fair share of eulogies; even delivered a few myself. I know I will see it again in the future.
But it is not too often that I think deeply about my own ending. Still, there have been many practice runs, many endings. Many final stops that sometimes left me gasping for air. The ending of my childhood. The sputtering out of my operatic career. The first time I realized my love was not returned. The hysterectomy that closed the door to motherhood forever. The loss of a friendship. Moving away. Letting go of expectations and dreams. The gradual departure of the bloom of youth, that now I recreate with rouge. All endings, a sort of shadowy death, none of them any the less permanent even though I still breathe.
The truly strange thing after all these is that, like the first encounter, once I looked clearly face to face, none of them was frightening. Sad sometimes. Sometimes, a painful relief. Confusing. Humbling. Sometimes with tears, sometimes just a quiet sort of resignation. A few times, a blessing I couldn’t recognize until much later.
But not frightening. At least, not once I got up close.
I guess I’m thinking about this today because of Covid-19. Because the economy has taken such a huge hit. Because of the daily numbers of the sick and the dead. Because of the people on my prayer list. Because of the food banks. Because of the dreams I have been having about being lost in a huge city with streets and buildings that move all by themselves, or the other dreams about old people who fit into matchstick boxes and then die and leave behind them small mounds of dust, in which are hidden brooches and necklaces with rubies and diamonds. Because of the nights when it is 1:30 am and I lay looking at a ceiling with no cracks, knowing those dreams are still hours away.
Am I confused? Clearly. Am I at a loss? Isn’t everyone? Am I saddened? Of course. Am I out of my league? Probably. Am I afraid?
Yet the world tells me that I am afraid. That I should be, if I am not. The mainstream news and the alternate news, blasting the mainstream news. Internet articles. Memes. Protests and counter protests. Monstrous, hateful strings on Facebook in which one side angrily refutes the logic of the other, because of fear. We tell each other in our own terror not to be afraid, yelling it at each other like a command that must be but can’t be obeyed.
I think it is because we are not close enough yet. I am not talking about eliminating the six-foot rule of social distancing. I am not talking about going about unmasked.
At least not the fabric masks.
As long as we can hold each other at a distance our hearts won’t reach, we’ll be afraid. As long as we can keep our favorite masks on, the ones that make us look competent, assured and accomplished, we’ll be afraid. Or the masks that make us acceptable to others, the ones we are forced by others to wear. Or still other masks of anger and impatience, which we often insist on seeing and speaking through despite ourselves. Those are the particularly painful ones that leave lasting marks, especially around the eyes.
As long as we insist on reviewing all the options before we allow ourselves the dangerous privilege of vulnerability, we’ll be afraid. As long as we can close our ears and look the other way, we’ll be afraid. As long as there are clear lines between “them” and “us” we will be afraid, and death will come just the same.
Because death crosses the lines all the time. Death is an equalizer, unalterably fair in its impartiality. It looks us each in the eye and demands our honest surrender. No quarter given. While it comes in infinite variety, it is reliably consistent to everyone. Everyone loses something sometime. Everyone has to say goodbye to what was, and everyone has endured endings. Everyone – often many times throughout their life – dies. The one time I think Shakespeare really missed the mark was when he wrote, “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.” I disagree. The bravest soul, I believe, is one willing to die as many times as it takes to keep on growing into a real honest-to-god human being.
Maybe if we sat with our own particular death a little while, in whatever guise it chooses for the day, we would come to learn that. Maybe we’d be more patient with each other because we could be more patient with ourselves. Less likely to point fingers, less likely to disassociate and condemn. Less afraid to listen. Less afraid to see. Less afraid to connect.
Just less afraid.
If we embraced the deaths in our lives, deaths that put us on new paths, challenge our old perceptions, deaths that pry our fingers off our most precious possessions and require us to hold them again more lightly, deaths that force us to redefine ourselves – maybe we’d each and collectively be just a little bit more…alive. Maybe.
Maybe it’s worth a try.