Posts Tagged death

“A Labonza!”

We’re all dying.

From the moment we’re born, we’re all terminal cases. Of course. And shortly after attaining adulthood, parts and systems in our bodies start to break down, if ever so slowly at first. Metabolism slows. Repairs to damage happens slower and slower over time. Cells eventually start to make errors when reproducing. Our vision dims, tinnitus may show up, and we discover the weird and annoying consequences of “sleeping wrong”. Eventually we develop aches that seem to have no specific source at all. This is all very normal. And for most of us, it takes a very long time for one of these systematic breakdowns to lead to actual death.

But there’s another way we are all fading from this earth. Our memories are slowly dying, you see. Not just in our own minds, but really long before any mental issues might kick in, the constantly growing collection of stories and experiences overwhelms our ability to share them with others. At first this is no big deal, as most of the things we experience and then later remember are not really that significant.

But a point comes in life where our specifically cherished memories also begin to lose purchase on the world.

I remember when one of my uncles passed away. It was very sad for me; he was one of the very small collection of adults I had looked up to from my earliest memories. He was a smart man of integrity with a great sense of humor. But as hard as it was for me to lose him, it was a thousand times harder for his two siblings, my mother and my other uncle on that side of the family. And I remember my mother saying something to me that has really stuck in my mind in the many years that have gone on since then. She said that one of the hard parts about losing a brother like that was that the circle of people you shared a very large collection of memories with suddenly shrank. There were things she and her two brothers experienced together that were really just theirs and no one else’s. And now half the people she shared those memories with was gone.

And over time, that shrinking of the various circles of people you share particular memories with continues, a rising sea of human entropy slowly washing away the little islands of shared experience that we build up in the first half of our lives. A few years ago, one of my three best and earliest childhood friends died, well before his time. I probably spent hundreds and hundreds of hours wandering around our small town, just him and me, playing all sorts of imaginary games, having all sorts of conversations. Whole summers spent with mostly just him. We built up a huge canon of inside jokes and “do you remembers” and weird shared experiences. The time he flipped his bike end over end at the bottom of Cathedral Hill and a woman jogged up to us announcing she was a trained nurse. Weirdly, we laughed about that for years. The complex fantasy world we built up over several summers, in which we were characters in the Star Wars universe.

There were also hundreds of more hours we spent together in shared company with other friends. Playing dungeons and dragons with his older cousins and their friends. Hanging out with other classmates of ours. Getting into pretty serious trouble with adults for various things we did.

And then he died.

I believe in a life after death, but I also really cherish this life here and now. And here and now I am no longer able to connect with my friend. I haven’t for years and years. And that makes me the sole earthly guardian of those hundreds of hours of cherished shared memories, now.

What do you do with that burden? I can share those memories with others, like I am now, or maybe in much more detail. I can tell my kids about him. I can reach out to his kids and tell them about their father’s goofy childhood adventures. But honestly? I’m not sure these memories I hold will really bare any meaning to anyone else.

When I was a teenager, my father took me fishing for bluefish off the New Jersey coast. He did it once a year for many years. It was a trip that he had started doing just with some friends, and I would hear about it but never go. Then one year, I was old enough. We woke in the dark of night and drove to Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island. He, a couple of very good friends of his, and the oldest sons of each of those friends, who also happened to be friends of mine. Six “men” off to do a “man thing” at dawn.

Every year was basically the same as that first time. We would arrive in Barnegat Light around dawn after a two hour drive from Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. We’d eat breakfast at a diner, there, and then go find our little chartered fishing boat, and climb aboard with coolers full of hoagies bought the night before, and plenty of cold drinks.

The ship was the Dan Rick, and it’s captain was Joe Burt. The first thing I remember Captain Joe saying was a question to my father, “Did you tell them I yell?”

And yell he did. Once out on the sea, this ancient mariner seemed hell bent on scaring bluefish up from the depths by the sheer power of his temper. I loved fishing, and he hated missing a catch. He cursed and swore but he also hollered and celebrated, as the occasion called for it. When the fish began seriously hitting our lines, he yelled out, “A labonza!” which he gleefully explained to us meant “Gut them in the belly!”

A couple of weeks ago I was back on Long Beach Island. My mother has a beach house, there, and my extended family takes turns vacationing there. I got to thinking about old Cpt. Joe and the Dan Rick, and wondered if there was any way to figure out which diner I had gone to as a kid on those trips, decades ago.

The thing is, Joe Burt is dead. My father is dead. The fathers of the other boys on that trip are also dead. I could call my childhood friends up and ask them about it, but they too had been young teens and after tens of years, the odds that any of us would know where the diner was was pretty slim. Really, the diner probably doesn’t exist any more. Certainly the Dan Rick is gone, I would think.

But I fired up the google machine anyway. I figured if I could find an old reference to the Dan Rick in a newspaper, maybe in an advertisement for Joe Burt’s charter fishing services, then I could figure out where exactly the ship had been berthed. And from there I could maybe begin a search for the old diner.

What I found, instead, was a memoir. Joe had a son. He had been mate on the Dan Rick at one point, but moved on in life long before my father ever sailed with his father. He eventually went to Oxford, and to Yale, and became a lawyer. He moved to London. And now he’s a poet. And he wrote a memoir that had a lot to say about his old man.

I had known Joe Burt as a wild character. The stories he told while we chummed and fished were colorful and fascinating, especially to a young teenaged boy. But they were just a tiny sliver of the man. He had been a boxer as a youth. His family had connections to Jewish mobsters in Philadelphia on his mother’s side, and the previous generation on his father’s side were all wiped out in a single day in revolutionary Russia. And he was a difficult man to be the son of. The Cpt. Joe I knew was an elderly shadow of the violent tempered man that had come before.

Joe died taking with him many more memories that were never captured in his son’s writing, I’m sure. And I have my own personal memories made with the man that are not in the slim book, that I share with a couple of friends, at least so long as they continue to live. And myriad swirling jumbled-up recollections and experiences live in my mind, unshared, even now. And I now understand what compels older people to push their stories on the younger generation, even when the audience seems politely bored at best.

What do you do with them? They are treasures, in a way, but they hold no currency with most of humanity. Some I value because of what they represent, but many more I value merely because they are mine. A part of me wants to share them with my children, an endless stream of remembered hopes and dialogues and feelings and events. But to what end? And who has time for the past when the present is already so full and insistent on being lived? I think allowing the past to crowd out the creation of the future is a mistake. And so my past, like everyone’s, is slowly dying ahead of me.

John Dunne wrote that “no man is an island”. But Matthew Arnold (one of my favorite writers ever) took issue with that notion. Read his “To Marguerite: Continued”, or (even better in my opinion) “The Buried Life”. Arnold beautifully and sadly shows us that each person is a vast realm of thoughts, feelings and experiences that we only ever catch a bare glimpse of. Only with great effort do we share a small piece of our true selves with another person. Read James Joyce’s The Dubliners, especially its final story, “The Dead”: the dramatic stories that unfold just in one person’s mind, unshared and maybe unsharable with the world around them, despite a desperate need for connection, are a very real part of the universal human experience.

All that we are is constantly fading away. We forget so much ourselves, and so much more is never known to any but a few, and they too are passing, as Roy Batty said in Blade Runner, “like tears in rain”.

And so I write.

Like I said, all adults are dying. Of course we are. Cells don’t repair and reproduce as quickly and as well as they did when we were kids. Memories fade. Eyesight dims and eventually we start waking up with little aches every day. But that’s not all. Our stories are slowly dying, too. Memories of special times that have not faded from our minds are nevertheless fading from the world. Slowly, the characters who were there are themselves dying. The diner where we had that memory no longer exists. The person we could always say, “Remember that time?” to, is gone.

And the things we once thought would be important are perhaps still important, but also so unreachable that we slowly let go of their importance because…what else can we do? Dreams of our childhood were not all significant, but some were.

I have a million private joys and hopes and dreams, and a bare fraction of them have been shared with my children. I’m not at the age, yet, where I feel compelled to tell stories of my youth to the uninterested generation that follows me, but I can now feel where that comes from.

We all contain worlds. And those worlds are forever disappearing.

And perhaps that’s because those worlds are not what matter.

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Caught in Writing Before It Fades

I write what will turn out to be my final email, to my mother. In it I describe how I would often bring people together in my home to play jazz and the blues together, stealing riffs from a pair of old books. When I am done, I realize that I hope she and my sisters will some day share this with my young son.

It is then that I understand that the flight I am about to take is the one that had crashed with no survivors. Don’t ask why we’re re-flying it. All I know is that I am meant to be on that flight, so I feel honor-bound to get back on it. I hug my mother, then walk to my destiny.

The plane is small. I open the hatch to the cabin and see the rest of the passengers, strapped in, waiting. There is a pile of cash on the floor near the one remaining empty seat. My mind is racing, trying to figure out how I will explain my continued existence after the plane goes down without me on it. I can think of no ruse, and am emotionally preparing to fly to my death. I look at the money, scoop most of it up, and walk back up the small white concourse away from the plane, looking to donate the handful of bills to some good cause so that it does not burn up, wasted, when we inevitably crash.

Walking back from the desk where I left the money, I am still torn about whether to go through with it and get on the plane that I had been meant to die on, or somehow escape my fate. For some reason the death seems noble.

I choose not to die.

I find myself elsewhere. Possibly the other passengers are there, too–or at least some of them. It is a clinic of some kind, in a technologically advanced near future. In this future, going through procedures to genetically modify oneself is the norm. I’m not that interested in changing, despite the slightly manipulative voice being beamed into the room I’m passing through, suggesting that the only way any citizen of the future can ever catch the eye of a gorgeous genetically modified movie star is by also being genetically modified to be perfect.

I get to the front desk. Everyone’s clothing is odd: hand-me downs and burlap sacks, everything with neck holes rough cut into them regardless of how they’d been originally tailored. Someone who works there and who is guiding me hands me a pair of sheers, and one to the woman who came in next to me so we can cut the collars off of our own shirts and then cut a notch down the front from the neck, like some medieval tunic. It occurs to me that this way they can launder everyone’s clothes and then not worry about who gets which shirt the next time.

As I struggle through cutting the fabric of my shirt with the dull scissors, do I want to contribute a nickel? I drop a nickel into the plastic container being shaken in front of me. Something about being “nickeled and dimed” runs through my head, but leaps out of reach before I can fully resolve it. I continue to cut. This place seems oddly money-oriented, for what it is. Whatever it is.

Eventually I have my makeshift pullover tunic made. I struggle to pull it over my head; maybe the hole isn’t cut right? The alarm going off confuses me: so strange to be simultaneously getting dressed while also struggling with whether to even wake up.

I wake up, still wondering how I will escape, and how I will explain to my loved ones and to the authorities that I was unable to go through with my planned, appropriate, noble death.

(And no, I did not make up a word of this.)

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For some reason, I know quite a few people who have recently taken their own lives. I don’t know how much of it is because becoming a pastor a few years ago has circumstantially put me in closer contact with more personal tragedies than I would otherwise be aware of, or if it is because suicide is on the rise, or maybe if it is just bad luck. But what once was a rare horrible shock is starting to turn into more of a familiar, terrible, recurring pain.

I’ve read quite a bit on the natural and psychological causes of suicide. Suicide is usually linked to either mood disorders, personality disorders, or substance abuse. Also, along with the typical addiction, schizophrenia, depression, etc, there are often life circumstances that compound the situation. People who attempt to end their own lives often feel trapped, unable to escape, without hope, afraid. Often, they feel despair.

But despair can come from other causes, too. Not all despair is due to a chemical imbalance making it impossible for a person to have the right perspective to see that suicide is a permanent non-solution to a temporary problem. There is also spiritual despair.

Spiritual despair is when you are faced with the impossibility of your own redemption. When you look at your own dysfunctional behavior and at evil you discover in your own heart and cannot see any hope of change. Despair is often the final stage of the spiritual trials we call temptations. Spiritual despair causes you to feel like you’re drowning, like you’ve been punched in the gut, like you’re trapped under the ice, like you can’t draw a breath and soon will suffocate if you can’t manage to somehow escape the flood and suck in some air. In despair, things that once seemed certain–the existence of God, the love of friends, the value of life–fall to doubt and even rejection.

I’ve been there. I have been certain that life has no meaning. I’ve been convinced there’s no hope for my soul. I’ve never been suicidal. But I most certainly have despaired.

I’m not saying most suicides are connected to spiritual temptation alone. As I said earlier, suicide is heavily linked with mental illness. Usually it involves someone whose brain is not allowing them to see the full spectrum of possibilities in their lives. Depression is a natural ailment, but it imitates a spiritual one, and hell will use any tool it can get its hands on to destroy a person. So there is a spiritual component to suicide. Just not the one most traditionally expounded by western religions. The Christian idea of suicide as a special kind of sin comes from medieval theologians, not the Bible. Yes, suicide is horribly hurtful to all the people left behind; it is evil. But committing suicide doesn’t have any special go-directly-to-hell-do-not-pass-go rules associated with it. It is one more short-sighted, hurtful mistake among the thousands we humans often commit.

But despair is evil. It is not evil to despair, but to cause it. We are spiritual beings, surrounded by an unseen world that influences us nonetheless. There is a heaven and there is a hell, and hell doesn’t like you very much. Despair is a powerful tool for hell.

Despair can cause you not only to kill yourself physically, but to attempt spiritual suicide as well. To decide, “Well, I’m not the sort of person that belongs in a church.” To say to yourself, “What difference does it make what decision I make. It’s not like I’m ever going to heaven, anyway.” To declare, “There is no God, so it doesn’t matter which decision I make.” Despair sets you up for the next temptation, shatters your resolve so that you backslide into behaviors you had been trying to break free from. Like going on an eating binge just because you slipped once in your diet, despair can trigger a series of decisions that themselves lead to even more despair.

Don’t let despair get you. Spiritual despair tells you that you are no good. It’s a nasty trick, because it takes the very true idea that all goodness comes from the Lord, and turns it on its ear. The Lord said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Without me you can do nothing.” Despair says there is no God, so there is no good. Or if there is a God, he wouldn’t help you, because you are no good.”

That’s a lie. The Lord is forever flowing into ever person’s heart, inspiring in every person a desire to do good. You just have to accept it. You have to give it a place in your heart to land. True, you cannot overcome your spiritual temptations, but if you let Him, the Lord can.

When someone is drowning, they will instinctively act in ways that make it hard to save them. A drowning person is a dangerous thing. Ask a lifeguard. When you are in spiritual despair, your instincts are all wrong. Stop flailing. Surrender. Ask the Lord to save you from your despair, and then wait. He will save you, if you give Him permission. And He promises that after despair comes comfort. That after struggle comes rest. After combat, victory. Read the Psalms.

Moreover, when you are in despair, you are on the threshold of something good! Read Seth Godin’s The Dip. We often quit the wrong things at the wrong times. The great things in life only come after struggle.

Read through Secrets of Heaven. Over and over you will see references to spiritual rebirth as a result of spiritual struggle. And know that hell wouldn’t need to attack so fiercely if heaven wasn’t just around the corner.

My friend Jason killed himself a few days ago. I’m angry. Sad. Guilty. Irrational. Heartbroken. Full of “what if”. None of what I write here changes anything for him. It doesn’t give his family what they most want. It doesn’t undo the pain his friends are in.

But maybe some day you will be in despair, too. And maybe some tiny spark hidden deep within you will latch on to some small part of what I’ve said today. And it will give you the strength to get your head above the flood one more time, for one more breath. And you will be able to hold out, to buy time, to do whatever you need to do to get through your spiritual struggle so you can return to a place where hope again shines.

God Himself has felt it. He knows what we go through. He’s been there. And He’s defeated it. And if you let Him, He’ll defeat it for you, too. In Secrets of Heaven it says this:

All temptation is attended with some appearance of despair; otherwise it is not temptation… They who are being tempted are brought into anxieties, which induce a state of despair concerning the end: the very combat of temptation is nothing else… As the Lord endured the most direful and cruel of temptations of all, He, also, could not but be driven into despairs, which He dispelled and overcame by His Own Power.

Faith saves. But faith isn’t saying a certain prayer, or making a certain statement. Faith is living as if you trust that the Lord will save you. And to be able to honestly have that trust, you need to make an effort. Fight on a little longer. Do something for someone else no matter how you feel about yourself. Take another breath. Trust in the Lord, and He will keep His promises.

I could say, “Don’t despair.” But despair happens without our choosing. Rather, when you despair, hope anyway.

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Aunt Lindy

Each one who moves from here to there
Takes with them memories no longer shared.
As bulbs burn out, the shadows grow
Until we ourselves pack up and go
To join our light once more with long lost loves,
And leave still others to ache at our passing.

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Happy Birthday

Thinking about Dad this week.

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