16 May 2014

To Make Much Use of Time

A little over a year ago I experience my first death, that of a friend in town -- a musician, beloved by the entire city, whose funeral saw a mass choir from five different churches. I'd known people to die before, early in childhood, but their disappearance from life didn't leave an impact. Since witnessing his funeral, I have been haunted by the thought of death. It makes plain the inevitability of age, previously a thing more theoretical. I look at the faces of people I know, I realize: one day I'll have to bury you, too. What a thing to contemplate, an adulthood marked by the funerals of friends. No wonder immortals in fiction are always so horribly depressed.

I lost my grandfather last week. We knew the end was coming; he had been on dialysis for seven years. For most of my life he was a tired, ailing old man, and my chief regret is that I have so few memories of  him in his prime. It's hard for me to imagine him even standing on his own feet, without aide of a walker. Yet I made the most of the time we had left, I hope, and the garden at his home I planted under his tutelage still stands, still flowers. It's a reminder of life in a month now marred by death.

It struck me recently that part of  my mourning has been obscenely selfish; I have wept not at his absence, but for the death of my childhood, or most of it. The most poignant words I've ever heard come from Kurt Vonnegut:

Where is home? I've wondered where home is, and I realized, it's not Mars or someplace like that, it's Indianapolis when I was nine years old. I had a brother and a sister, a cat and a dog, and a mother and a father and uncles and aunts. And there's no way I can get there again.

Home, indeed,  for me is the 1990s, when my sister is a teenager and I am a child, and my mother is in the kitchen burning fries and every week ends with a ride up to my grandparents' house to sit in the porch swing in the summer or inside in the winter. Part of that childhood died in 1996 when my sister graduated high school and moved out; another part, an enormous part, was buried only a week ago.  I realized while out on a drive in the rain a few days ago that it's just a rite of passage we all have to endure -- the loss of grandparents, and then of parents, and then of our friends. It's easy to say a thing like that, to appreciate it mentally, and another to experience it, to know it in your owns. I always knew my grandfather would pass away, but I never realized it would leave this impression. I've never been more impressed than now with the reality of the epitaph, "As you are, I once was;  as am I, so shall you be", or that poem touched on so effectively in The Dead Poet's Society, "To the Virgins, To Make Much Use of Time".

GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may, 
  Old Time is still a-flying: 
And this same flower that smiles to-day 
  To-morrow will be dying. 
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,         5
  The higher he 's a-getting, 
The sooner will his race be run, 
  And nearer he 's to setting. 
That age is best which is the first, 
  When youth and blood are warmer;  10
But being spent, the worse, and worst 
  Times still succeed the former. 
Then be not coy, but use your time, 
  And while ye may, go marry: 
For having lost but once your prime,  15
  You may for ever tarry.

His funeral was a Christian affair,  in which both guests and the minister preached at the mourners. The Christian promises of eternal life have never meant much to me, and still do not. I'd like to imagine closing my eyes one day  and opening them in the presence of a man who looks startlingly like me, yet different, a man in his prime, with the strength and confidence of adult manhood, but I can't believe that will happen.  As a skeptic, I believe the grave is the end:  his and my atoms may scatter to become new things, just as they were scattered part previously before being drawn together by physics and biology to give us life,  but those atoms aren't quite me.  Never before I have I so appreciated the  bond of family, the continuance of genes and family-specific traditions. Eventually they too will perished, like an echo fading after the voice has gone silent, but that eventuality is so far in the future that it needn't matter.  Eventually the entire human race will perish, the Earth, even the universe -- but who can imagine a thing like that in full? I certainly can't. I can think about it, but I can't feel it.  I live now, in this life, and for me death is conquered not by theology but by a standing garden, by a host of cousins who bear his name, by  stories he told that we now tell, by the furniture he built with his own hands while he had the strength to do it. What I hope to take away from this meditation on death is to find a way to leave something of myself when my own time goes -- to gather my own rosebuds.