Wednesday, January 06, 2010

beauty & death.

“Actually, I hadn’t wanted to see the body. I hadn’t wanted to make a scene, being the only English in this farmhouse filled with benches full of black suspenders, black shawls & bonnets pulled tightly around chins. I’d picked a large watermelon from my garden, walked quietly down the gravel road, offered it to my neighbors as a sign of respect for their loss, then had hoped to slip back home. I hadn’t wanted to invade this religious ritual, nor face the stark reality of this home death. I’ve been to quite a few funerals in my life, but never to one outside the sanitized atmosphere of a mortuary.

“’Here, we’ll go through the back way.’ Mahlon guided me through the kitchen pantry door, depositing me in the dining room in front of the dead body.

“No flowers or wreaths prettified the room. Instead, the cherry coffin, lid open, its lines simple & sleek, was shoved up against the plain white wall. Silk lined the cavity of the casket, and against the cushioning lay Joshua, the grandpa, or ‘Grossdadi,’ dressed in a black suit, his beard fading into the whiteness of his shirt and death mask. His face hadn’t been fixed up, doctored with makeup to look alive. Rather, it was almost colorless, almost translucent, and clearly evidenced passage into a different state, the cheeks limp, mouth drawn. But Joshua’s hands dominated the physical and psychic space. Big veined, knuckled, and knotty, they lay crossed and flat against his chest. The skin, dry and dabbled with freckles, was spread over the surface like a canvas paint tarp, heavy and creased here, building there. The fingernails, stained the same tint of yellow that ran through the old man’s beard, were ridged, scored into tiny prisms that reflected the late August light. The nails, immaculate and scrubbed clean, were longer than normally expected for a man who worked so intensely with his hands. They chronicled the last couple of months of his illness, confined to bed rest and inactivity.

“During the same time, the events of the household had been anything but quiet. Nightly, buggies paraded down the gravel road, pulling into the lane, couples and often whole families with six or seven children making their way into the house with Bibles, casseroles, and cookies. Sometimes as many as twenty horses were tied to the hitching post, their tails swishing away flies, their heads bobbing, waiting for their owners to complete their prayers and visit with the dying man, who was propped on pillows in the front room next to the open window. Each night for a week before his death, a chorus of young girls, bonneted and barefoot, appeared before the screen, singing hymns, the notes light and pure, lifting the heaviness of the tempo and melodic line into another realm, drifting through the wire mesh and enveloping the old man in comfort.

“The young girls sang again when the two draft horses pulled the wagon that hauled Joshua’s coffin the half mile to the cemetery. There, the hole had been dug, adjacent to the last burial site, by two men with shovels. The Amish, one large family, bury their dead efficiently in a land-saving configuration, in neat rows in chronological order of the deceased. Uniform, small white stones mark the graves, the slabs often nameless, with only the death date engraved into the limestone. I’ve heard that in the old days, the Amish wrapped their dead in rolls of sod for burial. Then, no box, no artifact, no ornamentation stood between the dead and their return to the earth. Dust to dust; they made what they could of their lives while they had them, retaining the final goal of disappearing back into the ground in the end.”
{p. 52-54, Out of This World, by Mary Swander}

We run from it. We scale mountains, cross oceans, dig deep & climb high to escape from it. And yet, it finds us still. All of us, eventually. Some earlier than others. Some unexpectedly. Some late in life. And still more, fully expecting its visit.

Our culture loathes it. And when it happens, we seem to be either looked down upon for not fighting harder or draped in waters of sympathetic glances because it just wasn’t meant to be.

I read this. And then again. And I focused on the events, the tradition surrounding this passage of life. And I realized, once again, how incredibly beautiful death can be, given the balanced combination of acceptance, grace, & chosen circumstances.

She came to mind. I won’t ever forget her—my first patient that looked like death. I could feel it, we could all feel it. The rise & fall of her chest would soon grow silent; the breath seeped out of those cancer-filled lungs.

It seems too great, too hard a task to accept that it was her lot in life; that she was to die at a young 32 leaving behind a new family with children who would never know her. And it seems too difficult to think of the grief and relief that her family felt when the cancer won…when the treatments failed.

An odd conundrum, I think. We try so hard to run from it, scale the mountains of medical miracles to avoid it…and yet, we all succumb to it. Odd, I think, because we—as a society, we—as a family, we—as a church-body, we—as a profession have yet to let it grasp us, hold us, embrace us. We have yet to let it welcome us into its comfort, its grip, its beauty.

Because it can be beautiful.

I err on the side of thinking that when things do go ‘right’, when life’s breath escapes naturally, away from the hospitals, away from beeping machines…when death comes in the night, sometimes a slow crawl, sometimes through ragged gasps, it is beautiful. Always. Unexpected, unwelcome by those it leaves to breathe its scent, but always, always beautiful.

What are we missing? As a culture? As a family? As a people? What are we overlooking, choosing to ignore? The signs? The arrows? The gravestone, both real & imagined, left at the head of all our ancestors?

Perhaps it is because we have wishes yet unfulfilled. Because we didn’t get a chance to drive through our bucket-list. Because life served us lemons…& we didn’t have the sugar to make lemonade. Because it isn’t fair, wasn’t rational, was never expected…

But it happened. It did. It does. It will.


Perhaps it is because we have focused so much on the tragedy—the cancer that won, the diagnosis that handicapped, the places left unvisited, lists left unchecked, advice left un-given. Perhaps it is because we have focused so much on the future we’ve forgotten to live in the present, so much on the past we’ve failed to learn from our mistakes, so much on the present that we haven’t lived at all.

Perhaps that is it. We fall short in life and when it comes time to die, realize that we haven’t lived.

Dust to dust.

Because it can be beautiful.

resources: A Photography Project about Death & Dying {warning: graphic content}

1 comment:

Brianna said...

You always write so beautifully, and really make me think. You make me think about what is really important.... life is precious, it truly is a gift from God. Thank you for all you share on your blog, your stories, your feelings, the things you learn. I admire you.

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