I am about to bury my mother-in-law. She was just over a hundred years old. I knew her for longer than I knew my adoptive mother, who died at 55.
I have buried many people. My biological mother died a month ago. I never knew my biological father, he died when I was about 7. My father and father-in-law both died in their mid-80s.
They aren’t the only ones important to me who have died. My closest long-time friends are also dead, one by a heart attack and one by cancer. I do not come by friends easily.
I am not a person of faith. When you die, you are gone. Consciousness ceases and that is it. Any spark of existence that survives is in the memories of others. I cannot say that an afterlife is impossible but I have no evidence for it. Did I not mention that I am not a man of faith?
Every succeeding death cannot but remind me that my own remaining span is limited. Some of that may well be existence as a sentimental keepsake, devoid of internal meaning. Such was the fate of both my mothers as well as my in-law. Incapable of movement on their own and had minds packed with delusions from dementia or pain meds. They remained “alive” only thru the demands of others.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
And that is the truth of it. “I don’t want to die!” has two possible reasons. One is that you love life. However, many more people live on beyond their days of action and meaning out of fear of death than for love of life. Shakespeare understood this.
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of…
If you would enjoy life beyond the fading of the flower you must find something to love. Love is the act of extending your own being to include something extraneous. Even as you yourself fade, by loving something beyond yourself a corner of your life will remain free and happy.
But love also entertains great risks. To lose something you love is like having a body part ripped away. Let me suggest loving more than one thing. It gives one something to fall back on should a love fail. One love can also become an obsession. Having many loves creates variety. It is difficult to become obsessed with a thing if something else is always calling.
Nothing is sadder than an old person forever bragging about the good old days. To dream about the good old days without expressing a similar love for one’s “now” is to proclaim that your life is really over. All that remains is to bask in a sunset that will soon be darkness.
Plan for the future but live in the now. Your turn as a wrinkled, addled derelict, whether it be in the gutter or the old folks home or a hospital bed will come soon enough.
As the song says, we are but dust in the wind. Your continued existence in another person’s memories will not matter to you when you are dead. It is only a conceit that glory means anything beyond your own awareness of it. If the adulation of others and the great monuments you create are a source of happiness, that is perhaps a good thing. But remember, they are temporary. The adulation doesn’t matter when you struggle for each breath. Young and beautiful partners will not desire you when you wrinkle and sag. Nor will a monument over your grave mean anything to you when you can no longer see it. Even the greatest of the great are but historical footnotes – and in time will vanish entirely from memory.
The rich and the poor both suffer the same fate. In the grave, all differences are erased.