The music played. She danced with slight, tentative steps, a tulip too heavy for its stem.
When I read my copy of The Writer’s Almanac this morning, these words from the poem ”Old Age Home” by Burt Kimmelman jumped out at me, especially as I continue to ponder the death of a friend who had passed recently and most unexpectedly. Sitting in the last pew of the church listening to the well-scripted mass “celebrating” her life, I was left wondering about the simplicity and conviction of those who spoke. There was a certitude about her fate that simply didn’t fit into the more gossamer cobweb of my lack of such belief.
All I knew for sure was that she was gone and sadly with no word of farewell. My mind floated to Tom Paxton singing The Last Thing On My Mind. Instead of the high-minded church music, I heard the question “Will there be not a trace left behind?” As the program unfolded from rote prayer to song and back to prayer and finally remembrance, the words just seemed to roll into one continuous murmur. I remember little of what was said and wondered if the real purpose of the liturgy was simply to keep us from thinking that this life was now over and could never be reconstructed, despite the various homilies to the contrary. In the end, all I wanted to know was what was the last thing on her mind before she left us.
As we all go our separate ways to death, I can find nothing but sadness when the time has come. This has been a terrible several months as we’ve lost friends and pets alike. With two of my dogs stretched out in the grass nearby, I struggled yesterday with the rocky soil where we will bury one of our longtime pride, a once large black tomcat named Sneezer now growing fainter by the day. He will be next to Tucker, our big-pawed laddie who died unexpectedly in August on the operating table having a tooth removed. We had dropped him off at the vets earlier in the morning and told him to be a good boy and that we’d be back for him in just a short while. In hindsight, we wondered if he had looked out of his crate at us for the last time as if to say…“and perhaps not.”
We all love and enjoy our friends and pets and the good times we share, but reminders are always present that there is also a time to mourn as well as to dance, as was recited from Ecclesiastes at my friend’s service. Despite all the distractions of our every-day lives and our obsession with entertainment and achievement, we should never ignore the memento mori that we too shall one day die.
Be that as is may, though, there is a great joy to be had in life, especially in the company of our friends and the love of the pets we gather about us. In so many ways we are most fortunate to be part of a greater family that is constantly expanding despite losses that diminish us all.
I suspect that I will never be satisfied with any easy answers to our unique being and our inevitable departure from this world, perhaps the only one that we know for certain. So in the end I’ll content myself with some simple form of acceptance without tears.
Since today is also the birthday of Jean Bernard Léon Foucault, the 19th-century French scientist who is best known for originating the pendulum that demonstrates the earth’s rotation, I will allow myself to be lost in the abstract mystery of how language itself can sometimes give us some semblance beyond conventional religion of the meaning of life and death.
In his book Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco wrote: “The Pendulum told me that, as everything moved–earth, solar system, nebulae and black holes, all the children of the great cosmic expansion–one single point stood still: a pivot, bolt, or hook around which the universe could move. And I was now taking part in that supreme experience. I, too, moved with the all, but I could see the One, the Rock, the Guarantee, the luminous mist that is not body, that has no shape, weight, quantity, or quality, that does not see or hear, that cannot be sensed, that is in no place, in no time, and is not soul, intelligence, imagination, opinion, number, order, or measure. Neither darkness nor light, neither error nor truth.”
So as I continue to remember my friend who died earlier in the month and as we say goodbye to Sneezer today, we will also be honoring all those who have brought beauty and joy to our lives. May their souls be forever bound up in the eternal bonds of life.