Someone I never knew died. Yes, it happens all the time. Only this time, her name was Mitzie and she was my boyfriend’s mother. In June, a month after we began dating, Ricky’s brother, a sweet 29-year-old, gave the gift of his own kidney to his mother. Both patients went in and out of surgery optimistically. Only Ken bounced out of the hospital in days while his mother fought viruses and infections for weeks. Tragically, she fell into a coma and passed away in September. The surgeons are unsure of exactly what happened, and her sons are left in the dust of it all wondering the same thing. Most of us go about our lives expecting our parents to live to see our big moments. Girls expect their Dads to walk them down the aisle, we expect our Mothers to be there to answer the phone when we need reassurance, and we trick ourselves into believing that will be so—until it isn’t.
I had the privilege of being there, with Mitzie and her family, in her last days. I have to admit, there’s an awkwardness in being part of someone’s final days who you’ve never known. But, that only comes from the mind, and the strange feeling that you don’t belong is overridden by a deep compassion for a fellow human being, a woman who meant so much to so many, a person who made her mark in the world and was now stepping off stage. I didn’t have to meet Mitzie to know she was vibrant. I could feel her energy popping off photo paper, shining through her wide smile, forcing you to look right at her even if there were several people in the photo. As I sat at her bedside looking from her photos to her resting body I felt so many things, but what I felt most was the fragility of life. Life is so, so delicate. Our interactions with one another, the way we treat ourselves, the things we do with our time, it’s all so enmeshed that it’s hard to believe we live in a world with such perceived separation. What I say, do, and think makes something in the world different. As I sat at the bedside of another human being whose body was dying and whose soul was fading from this lifetime, I felt how frail we all really are.
A woman who had a life, just as I do, is in the process of ending hers. And just as this is for her it will be for me.
At Mitzie’s funeral, the Reverend read a letter from Renyo, a 15th century Buddhist monk and scholar, called White Ashes:
In silently contemplating the transient nature of human existence, nothing is more fragile and fleeting in this world than the life of a person…Whether I go before others, or others go before me; whether it be today or it be tomorrow, who is to know? Those who leave before us are countless as drops of dew. Though in the morning we may have radiant health, in the evening we may return to white ashes. When the winds of impermanence blow, our eyes are closed forever; and when the last breath leaves us, our face loses its colour.
Though loved ones gather and lament, everything is to no avail. The body is then sent into an open field and vanishes from this world with the smoke of cremation, leaving only the white ashes. There is nothing more real than this truth of life.
The impermanent nature of life brings about a variety of emotions. There are times when I laugh about it, and there are times I feel deep sadness. But, I have no other choice but to accept this truth. I remember sitting with my cousin over dinner in high school as we realized that I’d either be attending her funeral or she’d be attending mine unless, we laughed, we died together on the drive home. The belief that this truth was so far away from our presence made it easier to laugh at. Our minds keep us distracted from the deep truth that our bodies will one day stop functioning and life as we know it will end. We stop and go through life. When we’ve lost someone we suddenly stop, look around us, and think, “What is going on here?” Then the services end and we go back to hiding under our veil of safety. If we don’t think about death we don’t have to feel uncomfortable.
But to not feel something that is part of the human experience is a bigger tragedy than death itself.
If we’re not deeply feeling pain when life calls us to feel it, are we really capable of feeling deep joy? It’s true, what Alfred Lord Tennyson says, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” If we mourn because we love, then that pain, that grief, stems from love and cannot be separate from it. So, the times we mourn are actually not so different from the times we are in love. They all occur in the present, just as our own death will. The moment it occurs it will no longer be a future event to come, but the vividness of life will be at our fingertips. That’s how I’ve come to realize that to truly live I need to feel whatever I’m feeling, deeply, in the present.
The human experience is full of a spectrum of emotions. The joyful ones are not good. The painful ones are not bad. They just are. When I’ve mourned, when my chest heaved with heavy sobs, when layers of tears caked my face, when I ached in every inch of my body, it was beautiful. There is beauty in pain as there is beauty in every bit of life. To feel deep grief means that you’ve loved deeply,and there’s nothing more beautiful than that.