All of us, by being born, are immediately under a death sentence, how, when, or where unknown. As an English major and teacher, I came to realize early that the stuff of poetry nearly always comes down to mortality. I often think it’s this aesthetic appreciation of finiteness that propels all great Art, that only through the Imagination, or human creativity, do we get a chance to stave off ending in the creation of an artifice unassailable by time. And yet even here, we deceive ourselves as Keats reminds us in his poignant “Ode to a Nightingale.” Can there be solace in the grave with its suspension of awareness? When our endeavors are the stuff for other ears? In a world where even memory itself becomes cloyed with life’s pursuit? A world where even those who know us best age and succumb?
Sometimes death stalks us at elbow range, and we haven’t the faintest idea how close we’ve come. I think of December, 1981 in Kerala, India, when I nearly lost my balance tottering along a narrow beam as I exited from a river vessel. I didn’t know how to swim.
In June, 1983, returning from my son’s West Point graduation with my wife and daughter, I was driving in the mountains of Western Maryland along a three lane highway, with my present lane about to merge. Unfortunately, a semi-truck was laboring up the sharp ascent in front of us. I foolishly gambled I could pass before the lane gave way, only to find that three lanes suddenly narrowed into two with a car in the other lane approaching at breakneck speed. Trapped in a spatial pincher, I accelerated, threading a narrow opening between the truck and oncoming car. As I swung past, maybe a foot to spare on either side, I heard the car’s screeching brakes as I viewed in my mirror its desperate careening to right itself in its lane. I had teased Eternity’s border
And then there have been those plane journeys: planes nearly colliding because of tower errors, violent storms, a propeller no longer working (this one in the military flying over the Sea of Japan, all of us in parachutes).
Sometimes death comes looking for us close to home. Last week, for instance, on just a late afternoon trip to the grocery store, a big bumper in your face pick-up came speeding round a curvy bend hogging the already narrow road, sending me off the road to avoid a head-on crash. I didn’t have time to think; I reacted instinctively.
Two weeks ago, I took my annual blood work-up. Several days later, I got the mailed results. Bilirubin levels were elevated. Concerned, my doctor scheduled me for a follow up hepatic test and abdominal scan to check liver function and for gall stones, tumors, and cancer of the gallbladder or pancreas. Now anxious, I didn’t find relief in reading in my Mayo guide that elevated bilirubin levels indicated cancer. A short 36-hours after the test the doctor’s office called: the tests had turned out normal.
I got away yet again; yet I don’t fool myself. It’s kind of a hide and seek game we play with death. Sooner or later, it finds you.
One thing I learned from this most recent episode: how many are caught in death’s net, every year, month, week, day, hour, minute, and second. I note their anguish, their physical suffering, their often painful, slow demise. I have found my passion for others renewed; my sense of life lived in the context of the meaningful quickened; a heightened sensitivity to the beauty of every new day to be relished; a sharpened awareness of temporality’s potential to enhance.
To live life rightly helps our not clutching it. In fact, it helps us let go.