Warning: This post talks about death. The death of people and the death of birds. If you are averse to death, I sincerely wish you luck in this life that is so full of it. And also, maybe don’t read this? But, the post is entitled: COURAGE. So there’s that too.
I’ve been spending the past couple of days listening to Christmas carols, intermittently crying, then laughing at the fact of my crying, and finally feeling grateful that I have so much to cry about.
One month ago I stood next to my 49-year-old Uncle’s hospital bed. He had ceased breathing ten minutes prior. My aunt stood next to him, alternately crying and laughing (I hadn’t thought of premature death to be such a relief, but that was what it was, not horrible and sad at all -except for those of us who were left behind. But for him… it seemed so peaceful and so loving. And so: laughter). The laughter mainly was with us just that night. We laughed with tear stained cheeks. After that it was only crying -such insulated and blind grief that the evening Uncle Joe passed we went to a restaurant around the corner from the hospital, and we didn’t realize how obviously grieving we were until we tried to pay the bill. We were told that different regulars had covered this round or that, on account of our grieving. People, it turns out, can be so kind.
And then after that came the anger, as it does. And then more sadness. But most of all, just the memories, and the feeling that it can’t be possible that he’s gone. He feels so much still here with us. But that, I suppose, is how it goes if you are lucky and good and full of life.
That night in the hospital my aunt gazed at the three children she created with this man whose body was now beside her. My cousins stared at their father, his chest no longer taking in air, his heart no longer beating, his brain no longer sending out electrical impulses. On his wrist a bracelet that read simply “COURAGE.” He taught us all something about that. I think of it so often now. How much he’d gone through this last 21 months battling stage 4 cancer, which, by the time they’d found it had already spread to his liver. Each time I feel fear I think of how much fear Uncle Joe must have faced, and yet, how he soldiered on. That is true courage. You choose to accept what fate life has given you, or you don’t accept it. You grow hateful, and spiteful and resentful. And you kill yourself more quickly with that fear. Or you can choose to face it head on and be grateful for every day: Courage.
At the beginning of this year I told myself I would make an effort not to feel guilty. It has taken me almost a year to abide by this imposition, and I often slip backwards. Just because the year is ending doesn’t mean I will stop trying to rid myself of guilt. Some guilt is healthy, but after that it does damage. I am making an effort to repair that damage. But once you pull back the curtains of guilt, you find (instead of the sunshine of life without guilt): fear. Yet another curtain shielding you from seeing life uncomplicated. I have a feeling that after fear there will be something else. Some other set of blinds I need to open, but for now I am working on peeling back the fear. Which is hard, especially in such fearful times.
My family spent the day after Thanksgiving in my parents backyard, standing around a fire, toasting to Joe and to life. My cousin Tim (Joe’s son), and my soon-to-be-cousin Grant (Joe’s daughter’s fiance), handed out the pheasants they hunted for us on what was their annual Thanksgiving tradition with Joe. Neither one of them felt particularly like going, but they went because Joe would have gone. Not only did they give Eric and I four beautiful birds, but in a crate they brought us two living ones as well. It was debated whether Eric and I would start a pheasant farm or I would kill them right then and prepare them for the smoker. But I think Joe decided for us. The male pheasant flew the coop, up in to the highest trees of my parents suburban neighborhood. People gasped, others cheered, someone shouted “it’s a Thanksgiving miracle!” I could hear Uncle Joe laughing. My cousin’s fiance sacrificed the female. My cousin screamed at him and shielded her eyes.
Eric and I, along with Joe’s son and daughter (twins their Senior year in college), showed our gratitude for the bird by dissecting its head in the name of science. My cousins used their biology majors to teach me about the layers of the eye and the sections of the brain. They showed me the arbor vitae -the tree of life contained within the cerebellum. We learned that birds eyes are soft gel like capsules, unlike mammal eyes which are hard like marbles. We realized that the undertaker in our blood ran deep.
When it was dark I saw my brother staring up at the deck, but there was nothing there. I crept over to him and found him with tears in his eyes. We held each other. Later I stood by the fence staring up at the tree where the pheasant had flown. I cried until my brother’s girlfriend found me.
I don’t know what life has in store. I don’t know how our stories will turn out. But I know that every single day we have a choice. That choice is either to be fearful or to be courageous. To live or to die. Even though death is how it will end for all of us.
“But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.” -Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety
Wishing you all a bit of bravery.