We are living in a new age unlike anything I have seen before. Last Sunday was Halloween. During my lifetime the holiday had changed from a day to honor and relate to the dead to one where teenagers damaged property of people they did not like. Jenny bought a bushel of candy and prepared to hand it out to little beggars last Sunday, on Halloween.
Squads of children of all ages dressed in fancy costumes and managed by grownups ignored honoring the dead and demanded candy a day before the holiday. There was no candy left for those who celebrated Halloween. There was no discussion about what life and death really means
To my surprise a member of Jenny’s journal group sent her a letter I had written about life and death to a friend here in Logan a quarter century ago. The message was written in my adobe house in La Messia, New Mexico, and sent June 12, 1995 — 26 years ago:
I have been intending to write since your grandson was born. There is something special about a new life, especially one that bears your genes and depends on you for his cultural tools to face the world. This is a special time for you and ----. Watch the grandson grow and adapt to whatever is put before him.
In early March, I sat and waited for Dad to die. A few days later I received an Email message that my daughter-in-law’s (Dennis’s wife) water had broken. Again, I sat and waited — this time that my new grandson had been born.
Dennis called. Andrew was lying, eyes open, recording his first impressions of the world that Dad departed only a little over a week earlier. Andrew’s life is ahead of him; Dad exists in our genes and in our memories.
These transitions are a natural, inevitable part of life; birth and death will be events for each of us. Intellectually, I knew this, but a death and a birth of my own flesh coming so close together made me move from the intellectual to the personal, the practical, the emotional. I am thankful that I was forced to think about Andrew’s impeding birth as I watched Dad die and Dad’s life as Mary Beth labored to bring Andrew into the world. Since you are new grandparents, I will impose on you and share some of my thoughts.
The conventional wisdom is that births are joyful and deaths are sorrowful. I have concluded that both are celebrations: birth a celebration of promise, death a celebration of accomplishment. Sorrow should enter only if the promise is deliberately broken.
Jeff, a carpenter who helped me build a garage, said, “My father spent a lot of time in pain and misery when his children grew up to be his children and not himself.” It is unfair and unrealistic to expect our children to be like us. Each has his/her own unique combination of genes, and each is responding to a different set of environmental stimuli.
But it is patently fair to expect each to do his/her best to try to fulfill the God-given promise to the world that is presented with each new life.
I think life is measured by how well one loves, not just by accomplishments. Few have the promise to be able to paint like Picasso, write like Shakespeare, design like Frank Lloyd Wright, or govern with the wisdom of Lincoln. But each person has the ability to love, to give rather than just take. While it is politically correct to state that “All men are created equal”, we are probably equal only in our challenge to love, to give.
And I think that death is a celebration of love during the person’s life. Of course we are sad to lose that person from our lives. It is especially sad when one dies before his/her life has played out its hand. But short or long, every life leaves its mark on those who remain; every life changes the world for the better or for the worse.
SMU professor Albert Outler, in his essay LOVE AMONGST THE EGGHEADS, stated that we would not be judged by whether we judged our children; that is to be expected. Instead, he said, we would be judged by whether we spoke kindly to the grocery clerk who snapped at us, or helped the boss who abused us, or simply smiled and bought a paper from a homeless person on a street corner.
I miss Dad. Dozens of times a day I look out and expect to see him. It is not a time for sadness; it is a time to celebrate.
Death is part of the natural process. I have no fear of death, and when my time comes, I hope those of you who remain will celebrate my life, not morn my failings.
I know not how the letter I wrote in La Messila got from the friend I wrote to the woman who gave it to Jenny. But it’s not letters but love and action that define us.