“Death makes angels of us all, and gives us wings where we had shoulders smooth as raven’s claws.” Jim Morrison wrote that. I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. This time of year, I suppose many of us do. The winter months, for all their hallowed beauty, are also a time of retreat and decline. In fact, death rates in the winter months are higher than any other time of year. áIn literary terms, it’s no coincidence the remains of our departed are often described as “pale as the snow.” The relationship is more than skin-deep.
To be honest, I’ve always had a sense for the end. Must be the Danish in me. Still, living in a culture that has done its best to ignore our demise, it’s hardly surprising we tend to avoid the conversation if at all possible. The late poet, Alan Ginsberg, often wrote and spoke of death. In 1962, he and a companion traveled to India where they rented an apartment overlooking the Ganges River. For months, they watched the endless parade of funerary groups as they arrived at the riverbank to burn the remains of their loved ones. He wrote, “There they just lay it out and burn it and the family watches the dissolution; they see the emptiness in front of them, the emptiness of the body in front of them.” Watching the ashes dispersed into the river, Ginsberg began to look at death differently. Life as well. The fear he had maintained was replaced with the comforting realization of life and death as a simple and natural cycle, no different than the leaves dropping in fall and returning in the warming spring.
In his famous series of books, the late anthropologist Carlos Casteneda often referred to the idea of “death as an ally.” The same inevitability that Ginsberg saw, Casteneda claimed as a catalyst for proper living. He wrote, “To be a warrior a man has to be, first of all, keenly aware of his own death. A man of that sort has acquired a silent lust for life and for all things of living.” Even so, these wider views of death are little comfort for those left behind to suffer the loss – the lonesome bed, the empty house, the kitchen table dressed with one less plate. In a May 2019 interview, the actor Keanu Reeves was asked what he thought happened after death. He simply responded, “The ones who love us will miss us.” In truth, that is all we can ever know. The restful mystery of death does not lessen its pain.
My mother was well-acquainted with death and loss. Having relinquished a childhood brother to violence and a father (my grandfather) to a household fire, she developed an early understanding of heartbreak. My brother and I stand as sole survivors of my mother’s attempts at seven children. It’s almost impossible to measure the cost. Though never defeated by her anguish, it tempered and cooled her demeanor. How could it not? My brother once confided he felt my mother’s losses had distanced her from both of us, as if protecting herself from our presumed loss. Who's to know? Enduring life is often nothing more than good self-defense. Ask any prisoner.
For all those lingering in loss, I have only the words of Emily Dickinson to offer: “That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Peace.
PAUL WHEELER grew up in Oak Lawn and now lives with his wife in the Ottawa area. He is a paraeducator in Ottawa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.