Knowing death to the bone
You look up at the sun and it looks motionless in the sky; you can even show, if you have a flair for astronomy, that it doesn't move. Yet by evening it is shining through a different window of your house. Your house, too, is stationary; from morning till evening it never moves; yet by evening everything is different. Things ought to be the same as before, yet the whole ground of everything has shifted. This is how age comes upon us.
There is some security, however, in the fact that we are all ageing together, that all our friends are with us... until a few of them die. Sometime after the funeral there is the shock of realisation that their life has stopped. Even if I live for another thirty years, you say, I will never hear her voice or his voice again. The only memories I will have, thirty years from now, are the ones I have now; nothing will ever be added. Their life is “cut off from the loom,” as Isaiah said with such terrible accuracy. Everything they knew and said, everything they felt, everything they dreamed about and longed for is past. We have an urge to store up every memory we have of them, to make collections, to ask others.... It is all a proof, as if proof were needed, that their story is finished. It is all over, and that is why even the small details have become precious.
Now, look carefully. Whose life are you gathering up? Whose are these fragments? Are they not yours, just as much as your friend’s? They are what you had in common. Your dead friend was the guarantor of your existence, not of your mere existence but of the fact that you lived meaningfully. Now that he or she is gone, your existence is no longer as solid as before; the reality of your past is in question. Their life has stopped and you are moving on. They mark the difference between past and present with awesome clarity. If you have been identifying yourself with your past, then that past has fallen to pieces with the death of your friend. So in your desperation you gather up its fragments.
Death forces depth on us. We cannot look back unhesitatingly at our past and say, “that’s me.” Our past is forever dying and passing into the present. Some part of it dies every time a friend or one of our family dies. It dies and disappears. In a sense, not only the Lord’s tomb but every tomb is empty. “Why do you look for the living among the dead...? He is not here.” Neither are we; we do not exist in the past. Death constrains us to take the whole meaning of our life in our hands now, to look to the present. “He is not here; he is risen. Come and see the place where he lay.” Check out the tomb, check out the past. It does not contain your friend. Nor you. Your friend is nowhere if not risen. And you too: you are nowhere if not risen from the past.
Meanwhile our own death lies in the future. It is the big Stop sign up ahead.... To all appearances we will be annihilated, and our friends will gather the fragments of what we had in common with them; then they will have to move on: “they closed the tomb and all withdrew.” The sun will shine through other windows.
How simple it is for the animals! They come and go, without needing to read or write about it! Yeats wrote:
Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all....
But I still don't envy them, do you? Yes, a terrible knowledge has been released in us, the knowledge of death; but without it we could not penetrate to any extent the mystery of life. Death is the dark valley, life is the mountain that rises above it. Without the valley there is no mountain. Animals run on level ground; but we human creatures know the heights and the depths. We know life and death from the inside; we know them to the bone.
(From I Remember your Name in the Night: Thinking about Death, by Donagh O'Shea
Dominican Publications, Dublin 1997)