A DEATH OBSERVED

“…whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life?

For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes”

(James 4:14).

The American novelist John Gardner once mused that there were really only two plots: A stranger rides into town. A stranger rides out of town. Another, his mind perhaps tinged with a streak of melancholy and wishing to be more illuminating about our life’s true situation, allowed that perhaps there was just one plot: Death approaches. His perceptive quip was not that of a playful wit. He had an “up front” understanding that every person is sent on death’s way the moment one is born. Death is ever there … our intimate companion. It is death that puts the period upon the sentence of life!

Tossing a gladsome “Goodbye” to my brother and his wife, having come to the end of last summer’s visit, I backed the car into the street, speaking toward them with a “You folks be well!” – after which I heard Vernon’s final adieu, “I want to go to school with my brother!” He bent and intoned his words to a childlike pleading, all the while smiling at me. He knew those words recalled the sobbing preschooler he had been when he first spoke them: Many times mother had told the story of his wanting to go with me the day I stepped up into the waiting bus for my first day at school at the age of 5. Now years from that day, in jest, he spoke those same words … stabbing awake the sleeping memory of that far-off day tear-stained with his longing-filled sobbing. They would be his last words to me. Death so assiduously banished to the back alleys of our minds was already nearby and would in a few days hence announce, “It is time!”

Now I pick over a bin of words that with them I might fashion a few thoughts regarding what I think and feel in light of my brother’s death. The fact of his death seems a thing working along the borders of my mind altering and softening crabby feelings regarding stances too quickly espoused by both of us. Randomly and almost daily, memory hustles into consciousness vignettes of the way we were, eluding checkpoints guarding normalcy without any say-so on my part. Still, I am pleasured by these poignant snapshots of a former time. That he is no longer a thought not yet fully processed; though his death has given me a heightened sense of absence and loss, while strangely aiding to immunize me against the fear of my own dying.

Perhaps that is the way it is whenever death deprives us of those most close and loved. But here I don’t wish to be sentimental. With me it is much like Edward Abbey somewhere wrote: “… grief has its own place at or near the end of things, but altered somewhat by the addition of something like wonder.” Altered surely … as I am in awe of my existence, and buoyed by the conviction that purpose underlies all being I am persuaded of an “elsewhere” where our names are known and where we are expected. Therefore it isn’t that I don’t grieve his “gone-ness,” but my grief is nothing that avails itself of the ducts around my eyes. Comforting is the thought that his was a harvest-time death: The normal weights and measures of life governed; that is, he had more than the biblical three-score and ten years braced with the conviction that God was both his joy and his home.

In choreographing this dance of reminiscences, I am acutely aware that what was and what we recall seldom partner easily. Intuitively, one tends to leave unsaid or just flip by hurtful chapters of the past, lest one be taken hostage by ruminations of regret and disappointment. It is impossible to wholly say how his and my self experienced yesterday’s doings. What I do know is that our lives were a welded unity by reason of a fiery sense of family. Still, through the years between us we managed an enduring scuffling regarding matters of which neither of us would ever achieve a last word. Where I was inclined to be teacher to him he was the recalcitrant pupil, and justly so. I had to learn that love always trumped any thought of my being right. Where I was the scholar, he was the one who valued “the student” in me not wanting himself to be a student. To the end it was difficult for us to exchange the life-changing news of our inner worlds. Mostly, my life has been deepened and driven by a steady regard for knowledge, allowing its nuances and ambiguities. His life seemed a nonchalant gallop toward whatever it was that awaited his arrival. We were like night and day each commanding one’s own frame of reference. In the last, I believe it was love for one another that allowed each of us our own way of seeing and to live in the spirit of a mutual forgiveness for whatever blindness each saw in the other.

Faith-wise, I believe, we were always within shouting distance of one another. We both were persuaded of God’s overarching love for us, trusting the hidden order in the world. We were equally able to nurture our affection for one another with shared tales of a childhood past and those few but remarkably happy times when we would rendezvous through the years. I believe it was with him alone that I truly experienced what it meant to laugh out of the belly-regions of being. What both of us had always known is that our deaths were a fairly negotiated deal from the beginning. He will now be a silent presence in my mind for the rest of my days. His presence now lodged where I entertain thoughts of Paradise.

Should you ask about my brother’s death, I will tell you that while he lived there were two of us who could say where there was an orchard, where in the pasture there was a creek in which we swam, and how it was when the pigs got into the neighbor’s field of corn, the same day our mother took us aside and spoke bluntly against the fine art of cursing. Now I alone remember “this insubstantial pageant” of our too-short lived lives. What is next? Perhaps my brother knows. But as knowledge of the future is denied me, I will allow Shakespeare’s Prospero the final word: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

The Rev. Merle G. Steva is Minister of Visitation Emeritus at First Parish Church in Saco. He can be reached at [email protected]