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As I write, my wife’s mother is dying. After a long, full life, loved by her children, having declined to the point where death is a mercy, but still dying.
She’s the last of our parents to go. First my dad, then my wife’s, then my mother, and now her’s. When your parents are living, you feel there’s always a layer between you and the world. When my dad died, the image that came to mind was that I’d been huddled with my family in a warm, well-lit cabin, and then suddenly found myself having to take my turn standing alone in the cold winds on the ridge, and I’d be standing there as long as I lived.
The loss never goes away. For years after my dad died, I’d see a book in a bookshop and think “Oh, dad’ll like this” and reach for the book and then, with the shot of adrenalin that makes your stomach explode, think “Oh, no, wait.” Standing in the aisle, I’d tear up, and notice the worried looks of people who’d hurry past me. Even now, 11 years later, when I see on Facebook a picture of a friend my age with his father, I feel, with a sense of loss that makes me stop for a few seconds, that it’s just not fair that I can’t post a picture of me and my dad smiling for the camera.
* * * * *
“They think they’ll live forever,” said a friend, who’d just watched her teenage daughter and some friends dash across a wide street in Chicago, the don’t walk sign lit, getting to the other curb just ahead of a rush of cars speeding through the green light. I remember those days when life seemed unending, but I also remember being hit, once in a while, with the knowledge that I would die.
Reading stories about elderly atheists who said they didn’t fear death, I thought they had to be lying to themselves or to the writer. They had to be whistling past the graveyard — or whistling in the graveyard. They couldn’t possibly face death so happily without some hope of everlasting life. Now, much older, I know how they feel. At a certain point, you might feel you’d had a good run and gotten from life all you could reasonably expect, and that’s that.
Maybe I’ll feel differently on my death bed, if I’m blessed to have one, and maybe I’ve so internalized belief in the life of the world to come I can’t imagine death as final. But I think I feel what the atheists felt. It’s not my own death that haunts me.
Some years ago I mentioned to the oldest of our two sons that if things had been different — if, say, I hadn’t asked his mother to lunch after church that day — he wouldn’t exist and asked him how he felt about that. He pointed out that if he didn’t exist, he wouldn’t know he didn’t exist, so the thought of never existing didn’t bother him.
But what did bother him a lot was the idea that his younger brother might not exist. The same argument applied. If Jonathan didn’t exist, he wouldn’t know Jonathan didn’t exist. But even so, Jonathan’s not-being he felt was a thing that should not be. It just felt wrong.
Even if we can happily face the end of existence for ourselves, we feel that those we love should live forever. The idea that they would slip from the cosmos just feels wrong. Whether we feel they’re eternal because we love them or we love them because they’re eternal doesn’t really matter. The answer may be both anyway.
The horror of death isn’t so much that you die, but that others die. The tragedy of your death is that for friends and family you’re one of those others who shouldn’t die. They feel about you the way you feel about them. And because you will die, they wish eternity for you whether you care or not.
That’s all true, but it doesn’t change the fact that in this life one second someone you love is here and the next second she’s gone. I’ll never be able to buy a book for my dad. I can’t post pictures of us together on Facebook. My wife will never again be able to call her mother to tell her about the kids and hear her talk about her book club and the old peoples’ lunch after church. This just sucks.
Children, of any age, cherish your parents. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, but in this world, they die.
David Mills,former executive editor of First Things , is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.