What kind of life?

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This weekend we attended a memorial service to celebrate the life of a young man who passed earlier this fall.  He was sitting on the balcony railing at his college, telling a friend on the phone how much he was enjoying himself, how happy and proud he felt to have reached this point in his life when he lost his balance and fell backward.  He only fell seven feet, but he suffered head trauma that left him comatose. Two days later he passed away.

The memorial was a sad occasion for all the reasons you’d expect. A life cut short. A family consumed by grief. Hundreds of people gathered to ponder the randomness of it all.  But what I so appreciated about the service, what I’ll think about frequently for days to come, is the way the young man’s family talked about how he lived his life. “He was never embarrassed,” his father said.  “When he got into trouble, it was because he refused to be anything other than true to himself.”  “He wasn’t afraid of anything,” his mother said. “His first word was ‘more.’ He always wanted more of everything.”

Near the end of the service, the minister read the last three stanzas of a Mary Oliver poem. The title is “When Death Comes,” but it’s actually a meditation on life. The whole poem, but especially the last three stanzas, beg us to consider how we spend the time we’re given.  It challenges us to think about what we do with our days, how we want to feel looking back on our lives when the clock finally runs out. There are questions I frequently ask myself. They are the questions that drive me, that push me forward, that inspire me.

I talk a lot on this blog about being awake and open-hearted and taking chances; about the importance of cherishing the people who mean something to us, and the value of staying connected. But what I don’t often say is that I know it’s not easy and I don’t always succeed. Walking the safer path requires less of us, and honestly, sometimes, for a while, it just feels better. The most startling remark the young man’s parents made was that in a way, they were happy their son passed when he did because he left this life on a high note. He had the privilege of living each day passionately and authentically. He never knew the feeling of being ground down. He never had to settle for a life carved by fear. Who knows. Maybe he never would have. But I think there’s a greater chance of that happening as we get older.

I’ve been accused, in the past, of being a dreamer and a romantic, of viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. My dad used to say that I was too impatient. But what I know is that I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve squandered my share of days and let years slip away because I was afraid to dream big and take a chance. I’m not advocating being reckless or irresponsible.  It’s just that I’ve come to believe that sometimes, when we tell ourselves we’re being pragmatic and realistic what we’re really doing is giving up, and that strikes me as the biggest tragedy of all.

The writer, Annie Dillard, is famous for saying, “How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” I’d like to think that when my time is up, I’ll look back on everything I’ve done and be pleased. If I have regrets, I hope that it’s because I didn’t get to everything on my list rather than not having a list at all. That I will have lived what my friend, Laura, calls as a “memoir-worthy life.”  This doesn’t mean I’ll have jumped out of a plane, or climbed the highest mountain, or accumulated a house-ful of stuff.  What it does mean, is that like the young man whose memorial I attended, I lived fully and authentically. That I took all this world had to offer, and was always curious to know what waited for me around the bend.

I’m posting the entire poem but you can skip to the last three stanzas, which are in bold.

When Death Comes – A Poem by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

~ Mary Oliver ~

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4 thoughts on “What kind of life?

  1. Thank you for this post. My son died in a similar way four years ago. My heart goes out to this boy’s mother. I want to reach over from my side of this experience and hold her hand as she walks the tight rope over the abyss.
    I think this now about life. We don’t live it alone. We have each other but I also believe we have everyone we loved or who loves us, who has passed on. I know I love my children and I loved them before they were born and before I could imagine them. I also know I love my grandchildren but I cannot say I will be alive when they are born, I can only hope. All the same the love for them is real. I also believe that my mother loves me. My grandmothers and my great grandmothers also love me. And I believe that my great great grandmothers love me. None of them walk the earth anymore and my great great grandmother never knew me. But within me I carry her.
    So then what to do with all this love both in front and behind me? Well one thing I am pretty sure of, most of them no longer have or don’t yet have, bodies. So it is up to me to be aware of mine for them. Everything I find joy or sorrow in, they experience with me through this thread of love. Why not also actively include them in my every day simpler life of good meals, pink sunsets, layers of fog, the color red, walking my dog, the song of birds, this sun drenched late morning writing to wonderful writer, my deep compassion for another mother I wish I could reach out to. I know for me if I could go back in time it would not be to the grand events but to any one of the nights I laid down with my young sons to help them sleep. And now I know I was embraced my all of my mothers and all of my children, like a beads on a necklace, held together.

    • Eileen, what you’ve written here is beautiful and deeply moving. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sorry to hear about your son. I can only imagine. But you seem to have found a way to manage your grief which is something I find inspiring. I love what you say about not living our lives alone; that we love all the people who’ve come before and who’ll come after us. I wish I could introduce you to my friend. I know she would benefit from knowing you. I don’t think she’s ready just yet, but when the time comes, I’ll share your comment here if that’s okay with you.

      • Natalie, please do pass on anything I’ve said to your friend. Also this book was extremely helpful to me.
        About Grief: Insights, Setbacks, Grace Notes, Taboos Paperback – March 16, 2014
        by Ron Marasco (Author), Brian Shuff (Author)
        You can imagine how many books were pressed into my hands after my son passed away. Most of them were too painful to read. This book was the only one I could get through and the only one that helped at all. The most meaningful information and advice I got was from other women who had lost children. I got cold calls from women who started the conversation with, ” My daughter’s best friend told me about Sam. I lost my son 5 years ago.” “I read your son’s obituary in the paper and I wanted to reach out to you. I lost my son 20 years ago and I know what you are going through.”
        I make a point of reaching out now. When you next see your friend let her know that on the other side of the abyss there are a lot of women who know what she is going through. And I welcome her emailing me.

  2. Thank you for sharing this poem. It reminded me of a dear friend, who embraced this philosophy fiercely, and passed last July. The poem, your words, and Eileen’s letter, are all valuable reminders to live expectantly, live bravely, with open hearts and open eyes.

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