An emotion so alien to me, it makes me nervous. Of the many lives that have graced humanity’s history, none has survived. None. It’s that beautifully chilling inevitability of our mortality. We were all born to die.
It’s a somber thought. Quiet and mellow. Lonely. Cast aside in its certain uncertainty. What does one think of when death comes knocking? Love? Fear? Peace? Life?
It seems such a burden now to think of life as a limited commodity. Years on the shelf. Stacking. One by one until there are no more years left to stow away in memory. The frailty of skin and bones and tissues and muscles is shocking. And it should very well be. There is no desensitization in death. I will die one day. You will die one day. It’s the simplest act of give and take. It’s the library of life. You borrow a book to enjoy and love, knowing that you will have to return it on the due date. What if my due date is tomorrow? I haven’t finished my book yet.
Empathy and death. Does anyone really know how it feels like to die? I haven’t come across one who passed and came back. However, people sympathize with loss. One death can equal the loss of many: a person can be both a mother and daughter, a friend, a lover and wife, a teacher, a student, a mentor, a neighbor. Most of us have experienced loss at differing intensities. I can imagine grief at the very bottom, the lowest low. I think I know, but I really have no idea.
I thought of grief as I made a trip to the local cemetery recently. I had no one in particular to visit, and that’s really why I’ve never felt grief before. I wanted to understand it more: what it meant to die. What does it mean to live? Surely, sitting by tombstones doesn’t answer such questions so broad and loaded. But in contemplation arose respect and gratitude and integrity. Being there almost made me feel as if I owed it to Life itself to really live, purposefully and with intent.
I sought for grief there and found all these beautiful emotions wrapped around it making it shine from the very bottom. So bright, I couldn’t see grief at all.
Whenever I drive by any cemetery around my area, I always see fresh flowers dressing grave sites with vibrant colors of reds and yellows and pinks. When I went to the local VA cemetery, everything was stark and naked in whiteness. I know the grounds are maintained very well, but the info said that flowers are only taken away once they are wilted and old. Of the hundreds of tombstones that stood strong in that place, there were only a handful of flowers. Or flags. Or whatever else people leave for the deceased. And upon closer inspection, it seemed that most of the people that lay buried underground were those who were born from 1920-1940. All of them soldiers. Each one a protector. A hero.
I stood before an army of unsung heroes. So many of them. I felt so small. So humbled.
And I realized that most of them probably no longer have anybody–no living family or friends–who can pay tribute to their lives. The lives they lived with unknown purpose. There was Robert. And Salvatore. Thomas. Frank. Helen. Emma. Fathers and Mothers. Pop pop. Grandma. Husbands and wives. Together even after death did them apart. Died in 2009. Died in 2010. Purple heart recipients. Sgt. Pfc. Lieut. Forever in our hearts. Rest in peace.
I left a couple of wildflower bouquets I had made just before my visit. I said silent prayers for their souls. I took in a breath of their achievements and their lives, then thought about my own. I wondered if Michelangelo knew he would live forever.
As I glanced back through my rearview mirror, I thought of the cemetery as an archipelago. Each tombstone was an island. Lonely in its singularity. Each island its own character. Each person a unique life, a wonderful creation. Yet, seen as a whole, the archipelago stands magnificent in its form and proud in its company. It was a stunning, soulful revelation.
Do not fear death. For when you do, you also fear life. For death and life come as a package. There is no death if there is no life, and equally, there is no life if there is no death. So live. By all means, please do not forget to live.