What I do best is remember I’m going to die someday. Especially when my life seems to be sailing smoothly, this sense that I’ll end in nothing, that I’ll simply fall off the edge of the world, is the strongest in me.
My first realization of death was early and deep. I was four and was staying with my mother’s best friend, Auntie Audrey, who shared a house with and cared for an elderly grandmother. Audrey was doing dishes and I was playing with a toy tractor on the floor at her feet, when she said, out of the blue, “When Grandma dies, we’ll be able to do so much more together.”
It was the first moment in my little bud of a consciousness when I turned within: when Grandma dies, life will go on…when Grandma dies…when Grand¬ma dies, she’ll stay dead and life will go on, without her, forever…. Suddenly the toy tractor was unrecognizable in my hand. There was something incredibly big and terrible about living that had never occurred to me before, and I felt myself turning dark blue and sick inside. I was going to die someday and be dead forever.
After that, I’d dream at night of being swallowed up by the dark rivers in and around my home town, sinking into heavy, lonely nothingness, and I became afraid of bridges, ducking my head in the car as we passed over these rivers.
Even though I now live more in the light of day, I always seem to remember that it all ends. Intellectually, I’ve come to understand the necessity of death; it’s easy to see that life and death are interdependent, irrevocably entwined. Certainly I’ve been attracted to the promise of life-after-death that was part of my boyhood church indoctrination.
But now I think that Christ’s victory over death (and that of Buddha and other transcendents) is something altogether different from what I was taught and hoped for and almost believed as a child. I now think that those who attain victory over death, each in his own style, do so through a deep emotional embrace of death’s finality. In this embrace all resistance to reality is broken, and acceptance of life (and through acceptance, love of life) becomes complete. Thus they are born into a realm of living that is so full, compared to that of those who are still resisting, that “eternal” and “immortal” seem apt descriptions.
So I am one who is cursed and blessed always to see “the skull beneath the skin.” Cursed because I can’t yet come into full embrace with this skull. And blessed because… well, who’s to say I won’t someday.