The recent announcement of President Carter’s cancer follows on the heels of my hearing about many others whose illness of one sort or another has proclaimed their relatively immanent mortality. In other words, a multitude of serious sicknesses–cancer, heart problems and other conditions of ill health have invaded the lives of people I know and in many cases, love. Perhaps this has to do with getting older. I do not remember hearing as much about such things only a few years ago.
I may have been fortunate in this respect: The death of people I knew and loved wasn’t part of my childhood experience–I went to my first funeral, an aged cousin when I was twelve. Yet death as a part of life was no stranger to me. Growing up with pets and small farm animals I had an intimate acquaintance with it. Ducklings, rabbits, dogs, cats, and the chickens we ate for dinner all lived and died as I watched. I buried my pets myself with due ceremony. I watched as the chicken for dinner was beheaded with an ax.
When I was in my twenties I thought little about death. Then my children’s father nearly perished in an automobile accident. The thought of those I loved dying now forced itself on my attention and I began more to appreciate the specialness of life and of my relationships. Still, I was occupied with life and death wasn’t something I thought much about. Time went by and my grandmother died. She seemed to me an appropriate age to pass on. While I mourned her absence, I was busy with life and my little ones, we were no longer living close to one another and I did not miss her presence.
Years later death grew more familiar. I lost my father to illness, then my own precious son. Some years later several young friends died untimely deaths. Moe and more I was brought to an understanding of the place of death in life. As much as I mourned, I began to recognize that death was indeed a part of life; that dying was merely the blowing out of the candle that was lit at birth. Life is a gift for which I am grateful and the lives of those I love and have loved are very dear to me. Yet like flowers we grow, bud, blossom an finally wilt away.
Untimely death is harder to bear than what seems a natural process. My rabbits were killed when a dog got into their pen. My dog was run over in front of me. Later on my son died far sooner than he might have. Yet even untimely, this is still death as a part of life. Although I miss him still, my sorrow is not so much for his death as it is for the life he was not able to live. We are all most fortunate for whatever time we have on this earth. In my nightly prayers I make sure to express my gratitude for my dear ones, those whose candles still burn brightly. May they continue.