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Memento mori: In the midst of death, you must look

Ed Bierman-CC

David Mills - published on 08/16/17

Death tells us, “Look carefully. See what you’ve got.”

It had been a good day, the day one year ago Facebook just reminded me about. My wife and I were in Portland, Maine, taking care of my very ill sister. Having finished a round of chemotherapy, my sister was feeling better than she had since she found out she had cancer five months earlier, most of which I’d spent with her.

Karen had gone into the emergency room in March when her left arm swelled so much that she, stoic as she was, couldn’t take the pain. The doctors found a blood clot and told her the clot threatened her life and she was lucky she finally came in, but that it wasn’t her real problem. She had late stage-IV cancer.

The good day

That day a year ago my wife and I went to Mass at the church just around the corner, which was lovely, went back to check on my sister, who told us to go out. She was looking forward to an afternoon by herself, just puttering around her home. The day was warm but not hot, the sky blue, a soft breeze coming off the ocean.

We toured a colonial house and then walked along the beach at the end of the city. We went home, checked on my sister, who was binge watching a TV mystery series she’d picked up at the town library. She shooed us out again and we went to dinner in a nice brewpub a few blocks from her home. She asked us to bring her a bowl of their onion soup. After dinner, my wife and sister walked around the neighborhood, my sister pushing her walker. They talked of this and that.

A near perfect day, even given the reason we were in Portland. My sister died less than three weeks later.

The cancer returned at full strength, as if it had gotten bored with making her suffer. I thought of the movie cliché, where the killer stands in the shadows outside his victim’s home, enjoying a cigarette. Before it’s finished, he takes one last drag, flicks it to the ground, and starts walking briskly toward his victim.

In the midst of life we are in death. On a lovely summer day in Portland, Maine, enjoyed with the wife of your youth, cancer may be hiding in the shadows of your sister’s spine and liver waiting to kill her. I try to remember this, to help myself treasure what good things I’ve been given.

Something to observe

By “treasure,” I mean “see.” The post of which Facebook reminded me began: “On our drive back from a walk, I described to my wife some people and scenes we’d passed, and she exclaimed, ‘I didn’t see any of that.’ She sees the needs of people she’s with, especially people she’s caring for, often by intuiting what’s going on below the surface. For all her virtues, she is not generally observant, or perhaps I should say, is not an observer. It’s not what she does.”

I used our conversation to introduce the writer Shirley Jackson’s comments on the writer’s life. A writer, she says, sees “everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing. Just as I believe that a painter cannot sit down to his morning coffee without noticing what color it is, so a writer cannot see an odd little gesture without putting a verbal descriptions to it, and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.”

The writer does what everyone should do. Always notice. Always look, always see. You must really look, truly to enjoy what you have. Stop, look at your sister as she tells you to go enjoy the day. Don’t just keep moving. Look at your wife as you walk along the beach.

In the midst of life we are in death. Death tells us, “Look carefully. See what you’ve got.” In the midst of death, if we let it throw into contrast all the blessings God gives us, we are in life.

Read more:
How I dropped out of the rat race (without giving up my life)

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