A few weeks ago, at the height of autumn's orgy of brilliant color in Southern Indiana, I was at the wedding of a friend. It was an outdoor wedding, and one of the most beautiful outdoor weddings I've been to at that. The height of the trees, the way our makeshift congregation was nestled up to their landscaped edge...I felt as if I was in Mother Nature's version of the Notre Dame. The trees, thick and towering, were vibrant with fiery reds, golden yellows, and deep purples. They almost seemed alive. But every time the wind blew, the leaves would gently, effortlessly fall to the ground with grace and in silence.
I don't know if it was witnessing the sacrament of marriage, or the unexpectedness of finding myself in that great outdoor cathedral, but I was overwhelmed with the sense that life and death were happening all at once, right in that moment. My friend was getting married, for which I was so happy for him and his new wife, but he was no longer going to be the same friend I had known up until that point. I wasn't sure if I wanted to smile or cry.
I grew up relatively privileged. And mostly sheltered from the realities the rest of the world encounters daily: illness, disability, poverty, loss, death. My life was mostly, and usually only, about Life. And then a few years ago I became pregnant...and then became a parent. My world was no longer controlled by me (whether or not it ever actually was is a musing for another time), and stories of life and death and loss and birth were the white noise of those days. Mother's who had almost died...their babies who miscarried or were born still...friends who caught babies at births that were already given to heaven. The birth of my daughter made me realize, as silly as this may sound, that I'm not going to live forever. I'm not going to be young forever. My parents aren't always going to be there and definitely, maybe sooner rather than later, will be less able-bodied than they are now. Her birth, and all the beautiful things that accompanied it, also became a timestamp for the inevitability of Death.
In the two-plus years that have passed since those very early days of becoming a parent, I've noticed this pattern: that wherever there is Life, there is also Death. Always. The two are never uncoupled. The birth of a baby is the birth of a new person, of new parents, of new grandparents, of new siblings, of new friendships, of new patterns of family life. It is also the death of whatever was before...everything changes. Parts of old relationships die. Daily life as an un-childed person dies. Maybe some of our ambitions die. And, God bless all parents, sleeping-in certainly, certainly dies.
Sometimes the coupling presents itself subtly, almost without notice. Like the cooking of food...I pick a tomato from my garden, ending it's life. Then I cook it, eat it, and have my own life sustained by it's nutrients. At other times the life-death duo smacks you in the face so damn hard you're not sure what just hit you. Two months ago I went to the funeral of a dear friend's father, who had died too young from cancer. He was the first of our friends' parents to die. After the funeral I was catching up with our close girlfriends when another friend and I announced to them that we were both pregnant. Life. On the way home from that gathering after the funeral, one of those friends actually witnessed and became first responder to a fatal single-car accident. She was with that young girl when she died. Death. Two deaths, two new lives, all within that one day. Death and Life are always together.
I go back and forth between feeling comforted or completely terrified by the pairing. What I do know is that I am lucky to have been given the gift of this lesson starting with the birth of my daughter. I try to not take this for granted. Many, if not most, know life as mostly just being about Death because that is what life has thrown at them. I, on the other hand, am being gently eased into knowing and embracing Death. To expect it, along with Life, instead of being surprised or unearthed by it. I think I am being taught this way because God knows (and I do too) that I am likely not sturdy enough to learn by jumping in the pool head first. I have such deep sympathy and respect for my friends who have, sometimes willingly, sometimes not.
We all have our cross to bear. Mine has been generally light and held up by others. I wonder, if I am given one that I believe I cannot bear...will I choose to not bear it? My hope rests in the possibility that when Death does come, the new Life that accompanies it is not only equal to, but maybe even greater than the Death itself.