Saturday, January 25, 2003

A couple of weeks back Death reminded me of his presence. He gave prior intimation of his intention to rendezvous with a friend of mine. [S] uncharacteristically left office early on a Friday after reporting to me that he was feeling a little unwell. Monday brought news that he was hospitalized. On Wednesday, as I searched the faces of the occupants of the intensive care unit at the hospital, I failed to recognize the man I had known for the last six months. Outside, the doctor explained how blood was washing in tiny showers the surface of his brain as he lay unconscious. The next Monday, the drowsy eyes of his colleague who had spent a sleepless night interrupted by memories of the former high spirits of [S] gave me the answer to an unasked question. An hour later, the same man while attending a phone call told the voice on the other side to hold on to himself and calm down. He placed the phone down and mumbled something I did not understand. But the message was conveyed as he stood there staring blankly at the floor. There was one more sojourner in the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns.

In the evening, witness to a cremation for the first time, I watched as flames returned what was once [S]’s body, now bereft of the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, to the elements.

‘Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life…’

Like someone has noted, death has nothing to do with the departed and everything to do with those left behind. It is a cruel fate to have to watch helplessly as a loved one slips little by little into the dark. You realize that the hand he extends to you for help cannot be grasped because it is not corporeal. My heart went out to those relatives of his whose desperation was tearfully evident.

It may be perverse to note here that humankind’s attempt to hang on to breath with the help of science and medicine seemed to me perverse. But maybe everything except Death is perverse. Life, light—are they not perverse? Life is a becoming—it is against the grain. Death is being; where there is no attempt to change; when the destination has been reached; when there is nowhere else to go to.

While on the subject, I may also call attention to the American poet William Cullen Bryant’s ‘Thanatopsis’—one of the finest poems on Death.

‘And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep—the dead reign there alone.
So shalt thou rest; and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny.’

And that final admonitory stanza!slcw