We spread the ashes of my friend’s father today. The rain fell, the birds sang, the mountain received its dusting. Though I did not know the departed, I wept.
My own father passed some twenty-six years ago, when he was two months older than I am now: 38 (or so). In another twenty-six-ish years, my friend will be as old as his father was when he passed a few months ago: 80 (or thereabouts).
This week has given plenty of cause for reflection on death…and life. It is hard, I have found, to strike the right balance between the somber weight of death and the joy of living a full life. As C.S. Lewis – a well-known Christian author – said of his late wife, “The pain now is part of the joy then.” But which do I acknowledge and when? Is there joy to be found in death?
We Americans tend toward the awkward in dealing with the inevitable. We do not train our children, or ourselves, to see death as a necessary part of life, the part that accentuates and gives urgency to the rest. Instead, we ignore it. Or get blindsided by it, or wallow in it. Or perhaps we let the nerd inside show a bit too much, making uncomfortable statements, seriously or in jest. Would that we could incorporate the reality of death healthily into our ethos.
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My friend told a story while we were on the mountain. He spoke of an incident many years ago when he and his father were called upon to rescue a woman off of a cliff near where we were hiking. The father had lowered my friend on a rope, and my friend had wrapped his arms and legs around the woman to secure her. The father, with assistance from others, was going to pull them both up on the rope. But the woman would not let go. No matter what they did, she simply did not want to leave the perceived safety – the certainty – of the rock. And then…the father said in the sweetest voice, “You are safe. Let go.” And she did.
For my friend, a believer through and through, the story spoke of the nature of man and his resistance to faith, and it was a sweet reminiscence on the kindness of his father as a model of the Father. I understand that. For me, the story also spoke of faith. For my friend, the rock was our own (mis)understanding of the world, at odds with what God has in mind for us. For me the rock was faith itself. In either case the proper move was to let go. And in either case, letting go was the scariest thing you could do.
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When my friend spread his father’s ashes in that beautiful spot on the mountain, I wept. Partly this was because I am a big fat weeping wimp, who will cry like a little girl at a particularly moving detergent commercial. But part of it was because I know what it is like to be without a father, and this was the final farewell for my friend to his.
And as I was standing there in the rain watching the ashes find their home in the nooks and crannies of the mountain, the vibrant, green, joyous sense of life was overwhelming. The birds were chirping, the squirrels and minibears were darting, and the trees and grass and flowers were drinking in the sweet nectar from the sky. All around this death ceremony life was being lived. A white-haired widow was saying goodbye as my six year old son was shifting restlessly and working his tongue around his first loose tooth.
Death was present, yes, but for me it served only to emphasize the raw vivacity that surrounds us, and the joy to be found there.