This past couple of weeks my life has been bookended by the birth of a granddaughter and some serious reflection on death and dying - with some heart surgery serving as an “instruction manual" in between.
Soraya Grace Hunter-Johnson, our granddaughter, was born just a couple of hours before I went into surgery for a pacemaker. Although the surgery and my heart condition weren’t life threatening, it was a worthy chapter in the book of life about mortality. Then this past week my Quaker monthly meeting study group focused on death and dying that, in turn, has led me to take a Bill Moyer’s four part series on death and dying, “On Our Own Terms," out of the Sno-Isle library, and I have watched all six hours of it.
Two clear themes are poignantly apparent when you put the two book ends of birth and death together.
The first theme is that the whole process of birth and death is such a deep mystery. Besides the baby’s little body and bright eyes smiling back at you, what else is transpiring in that living, breathing, thinking, creature? Has she come from another life? Is her personality and character already been somehow established, as seems likely? How could she already be a fully conscious person, which she clearly is? How could this possibly have happened?
And death has its own deep mystery as well, of course. The body functions cease, but does our consciousness? What connections remain in this temporal life through the memories of those of us who remain or through an awareness of the guiding spirit of the deceased at some mystical level as they pass from one level of presence to another. Many of us have had intimations of this reality as well. We have to leave it largely as a mystery, however.
The second theme, closely related, is the sheer wonder and grace of the preciousness of life. At our Quaker gathering this week a number of people spoke of how much more one savor’s life when our own - or loved ones’ - lives have been threatened by serious illness or accident. Many agreed that this awareness, of both the birth and the dying, keeps us gratefully conscious of the great gift of life given us.
My personal sharing at the our Quaker gathering, however, had to do with a more sobering experience of death than just our quest for “the good death." Death was not particularly kind to me, for example, with the untimely death of both of my parents before I was sixteen years old. And most new parents are appropriately anxious about the vulnerability of a baby, or about all our children as they age. The death of a child is particularly difficult and traumatic. As is the loss of a parent. Untimely death, or death with suffering and great sacrifice on behalf of our caregivers, disrupts our lives and often leaves us with trauma and deep scars.
All this leads to importance of community that both celebrates the great rejoicing occasions of birth but also surrounds and comforts us at the time of death and in our conscious grieving. We are born to be social animals, and no more so at times of birth and death.
Life indeed is a miraculous cycle of birth, struggle, joy, hardship and, ultimately, death. It is the ultimate “commons” of our lives. In this season of springtime with the morning chirps of songbirds and bright yellow forsythia and daffodils, may we be reminded that the cycle continues in full force - the great mystery of LIFE itself, with or without us - and we are fortunate, whether as newborns or nearing death, to be consciously alive to these powerful miracles of life that surround us.
1. Further reading and information on death and dying: Bill Moyer’s PBS special is called “On Our Own Terms,” and it is available at the Sno-Isle library system, and, I assume, on line. In terms of dealing with end of life care, I have read and strongly recommend Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, the NYT writer/physician who walks the reader through the history of end of life care - nursing homes, alternatives - using his own father’s death as an example.
2. Please consider joining other members of the Whidbey Island community this coming Friday evening, March 4, 7 pm for a presentation and group discussion related to the military expansion on Whidbey and the region. This event is being jointly hosted by St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Freeland and the Whidbey Island Fellowship of Reconciliation.