The tombstones remind us: we all suffer, we all triumph. We all die.
Death. Henry James called it the “Great Mystery,” and rightly so. But death’s many faces are at times as plain as the blood that pools thick and brown around a stab wound or the lifeless expression of a boy in a coffin. Indeed, death can be as plain as the silence of a cemetery, the odor of a funeral parlor. I have lived four decades and am already a witness to much dying: a grandmother’s heart gently failing in our living room; a distraught spy bleeding out on the floor of a London hotel–his terrified eyes locked on mine; a friend drowning only yards away; and with my wife, I even saw an alligator slaughter a child and take him down river, only the white of a boy’s t-shirt visible beneath the murky everglade water to guide us toward a fruitless rescue, canoe oars our only weapon against a monster. Recently in New York, I watched a man step in front of the 6 train. Death is no mystery in such moments. She is horribly real.
For me, the mystery lies not in the various scents, textures or faces of death, but in her lessons, her meanings. Wherever I have lived, and since I was young, I have walked countless cemeteries, silently touching history and subconsciously (at first, at least) asking the dead to share their secrets. To teach me something, to make sense of the dying boy, the bleeding spook, the alligator attack. At the Mt. Auburn cemetery in Boston, I returned often to the graves of Civil War soldiers who, year after year, wanted to be buried near the members of their infantry company, one by one, partnering in life and death. In rural France, among villages no larger than parking lots, I walked among men who fell in grotesque numbers at Verdun in 1916 or executed in scattered volumes during the Nazi occupation of ’42, ’43, ’44. And always, always, I ask them: what do you know? Why are we here? Why and how do we live? Die? How does this matter?
And what was their response? What secrets were whispered from those miles of graveyard walks, from those long gazes into a theme few wish to address? (“Death,” la Rochefoucauld wrote, “is like the sun: no one wants to look it straight in the eye.”) The ironies abound, for what I know today about death is the same knowledge I felt in my ten-year-old chest the afternoon I buried my first friend. And what I learned is this: life is extraordinary. Every aspect of it matters–even the biggest messes: the fears, stresses, heartbreaks, lies, distrust, struggle, the profound suffering. It all has a place along side the sublime: the first kiss, child, fortune, Ferrari, or porn-star sex on the terrace of a hotel in Rome. All of these experiences, from the painful to the most pleasant– have a role. All of it is perfect.
It’s easy to ignore these broader implications. It’s easy to lose ourselves in standard patterns, the narcissistic pursuit of distraction, pleasure, comfort, attention or even basic survival. Our lives become less and less about pausing and listening to the dead, and more about scrambling without reflection: going everywhere but nowhere, acquiring everything yet nothing. Devouring, fearing, worrying, fucking, bragging, looking for more while bemoaning what lacks. In short, losing ourselves in our selves. Even our relations often revert to a personal mean: what’s in it for me? Death, however, returns us to each other, brings us together. We all move toward her, even those of us who don’t wish to look her consciously in the eye. (“Death,” as Erasmus wrote across his chest, “stops for no one.”) Each of us will be humbled by a last breath. And so as I listen to the tombstones, I hear stories of joy and suffering that ultimately lead toward a unifying definition, a oneness among the many names, a timelessness among the many centuries.
Years ago, I stood before the grave of a 12-year-old girl in a cemetery in Sarlande, France. According to the porcelain plaque on her headstone, she drowned in a pond in 1863. A century and a half later, I stood at her grave, imagining her parents’ sorrow, their feet once planted in the same spot as my own, their eyes reading the same blue letters on white. Whether a child drowns in a pond of 1863 France or in Lake Michigan in 1980, all of us who pay attention to the lessons of death share a common wisdom, a common pain, and ultimately–hopefully–a common respect for life, which is ultimately, and always, reduced to and measured by how we loved while living it.
When I think of my own short life, each part of it is beautiful, meaningful. It was easy to savor bliss–courtships, marriage, children, travel, money, prestige. Yes, I have easy memories of ATM receipts with so many zeroes you feel like a master of a Tom Wolfe Universe. Life is easy to savor when beauty (in all her curves and twists) adores you, when circumstance feeds each desire and cycles of bliss seem permanent. At such moments, the cemetery is far away. But life is clever yin yang, and sends each of us struggle, regret, pain. Those we love can die, the money that seemed endless at age 30 can disappear by age 40. The woman who worshipped you can leave without the courage of even a final word, and those we swore we’d never hurt, we reject, betray…nearly ruining them with heartbreak. I’ve seen both sides of romantic loss: heart-breaker and heart broken. I’ve seen friends come and go, borrowers and lenders, petty and profound. I’ve watched children age, others die. And when these cycles of pain arise (and arise they will) I think back to the moments in those many cemeteries and ask myself: am I worthy of this struggle? Am I grateful enough–even for life’s ugliness, its terrible dark corners? I loved a girl (not a woman) whose dysfunctional family envied her love, suffocated her with judgment and distrust, so much so that their pain eventually became her pain, and alas, my pain. She sabotaged her own trust in love. And I too have hurt others, before and since, often mercilessly. Heartbreak can be worse than death, for as Jung noted, it is a loneliness coupled with rejection, it is personal, leaving us alive, yet dead inside. But even the pain of love, the pains we endure and the pains we inflict and thus remain in our conscience, are each beautiful. The cemeteries tell us so. The tombstones remind us: we all suffer, we all triumph. We all die. The pellmell of life is one of highs and lows that are often (as dear Wordsworth noted) too deep for tears.
Today, my father’s heart nearly stopped beating. He phoned me from a hospital in Ann Arbor. This wonderful man, this powerful man. His voice afraid. I can’t imagine standing over his grave. But someday I must. And I’ll remember how much I loved him, and from this death too, in whatever cemetery it may be, I will have known that I truly loved, and thus truly lived.
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