Uncommon Common Sense
By Bill Frayer
Contemplating Our Final Chapter
I have been in the midst of working on another collection of poetry recently. When I got a sample of the new book back from the printer, my wife sat down to read it. When she was finished, she remarked, “Wow, lot of these poems are about death.”
“Really?” I thought. “Death?” I certainly wasn’t intending to focus on death, so I took another look at the collection. Surely, most of the poems were not dark, morose, and about dying, but there were a number of poems which did muse about the inevitability of demise. Poetry is very personal and, to a degree, self-reflective. So it should not be surprising that a 60-something retired guy, like me, should consider the topics of aging and death in his poems.
Perhaps it’s been on my mind as well because I’ve recently lost a close friend to cancer and had another friend attempt suicide. As any elderly person will tell you, losing friends and family is an inevitable downside to our survival.
I ran across an excerpt from Roger Ebert’s new memoir, Life Itself, the other day. I am sure many of you are familiar with Ebert’s movie reviews. You may not be aware that he has suffered severe cancer in recent years and has had to undergo surgery which has left him unable to eat or speak. He has written that what he misses most is dinner with friends, not so much for the food but for the camaraderie and conversation. In his new book, he writes about how he has come not to fear his death.
“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.”
Christopher Hitchens, facing his own death from cancer, is an avowed atheist. Unlike many, he cannot take comfort in the prospect of an afterlife as he confronts death. Carl Sagan, facing his own death, spent time with religious friends to see if he could take comfort by accepting their beliefs. In the end, he could not and died an unbeliever. Like many of us, Hitchens and Sagan both have had to confront death squarely.
In our Unitarian Fellowship here at Lakeside, a number of us recently completed a study of Buddhism. A central point in Buddhist faith is learning to accept the impermanence of life. Accepting death as a natural part of life itself and letting go of our egocentric “attachment” to our lives, is how many Eastern faiths contemplate our transition to non-being.
Perhaps the best strategy is to accept the temporary nature of our existence and make the most of the time we have. The older we get, the more we realize that mundane considerations of money, power, and prestige matter little. Consider the wise words of poet Thomas Healy:
“Don’t strew me with roses after I’m dead.
When Death claims the light of my brow
No flowers of life will cheer me: instead
You may give me my roses now!”