For When I Die

“It is not length of life, but depth of life.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

 …

Whenever something saddens me, I can choose to do one of two things: One, cry onto a handkerchief, let everything flow out, until I can cry no more, or I fall asleep exhausted from all the crying. This does bring relief; I know my tears are bound to dry out, or I am bound to get exhausted from all the crying, and afterwards I shall recover.

Or two, I could cry onto paper. Let everything flow out as in crying, but this time tears crash onto paper and spatter as ink that form words, until there are no more words that would come, or the piece sounds completed. This is more difficult, as it demands the capacity to stay with a dark emotion long enough and embrace it hard enough until it all makes sense or at least dissipates somehow. At the end of it, I find that though more difficult, it is always worth it, because it brings not only relief, but the hope that someone else who gets to read it might find some comfort, connection, and solace in it as well.

So I try, as often as I can, to choose the latter.

Now is one such time.

The recurring theme of the week has been death, and so I write about it now.

A close friend of my mother’s is suffering from late-stage breast cancer, and the doctors have cautioned that she might only have around a month left to live. This kindly woman, whom I’ll refer to as Ms. L. in this post, doesn’t have a husband or children. As I was always tagging along in a lot of social functions my mother attended when I was in my younger years, I too was familiar with Ms. L., although we were not particularly close. In my memory, I recall only brief moments of greeting and mingling with her, as I’d had with most other of my mother’s personal and work friends.

My mother, who has visited Ms. L. several times within the past month and who is understandably upset by Ms. L.’s looming passing, had mentioned to me how Ms. L. always remembered me, inviting me to such functions as the “farewell party” she threw one day last week, and asking my mother to get a chocolate bar from the pile she had at home to give to me. I, as well as my mother, wondered why she always remembered me for such things, and my mother surmised it must be because Ms. L. had really watched me grow up and must have developed a certain fondness for me, the once-little-rascal she saw always playing at the library.

I did not attend the party Ms. L. invited me to, for reasons still unclear even to me. I must have wanted to avoid having to control my emotions if I saw her as she is now (my mother says she’s already so thin), or I must have felt inept at handling social interactions in general at such situations. I mean, what do you even say to someone who knows her death is near? How do you look her in the eyes without tearing up? How do you interact with the people also in the party, who are there greeting each other and eating off a banquet, but who also silently know there’s a woman in their midst whom they will never see again in about a month or so?

I was partly guilty for not being present at Ms. L.’s party, and it hurt me to see how my mother was so saddened by Ms. L.’s situation, crying rivers of tears every time she went home from visiting Ms. L. I hoped to do something for Ms. L. to uplift her spirits and make her smile, if I can. And since words are all I really have, and all I can offer, I thus worked on something I called the “Happy Card”—a card filled with quotes and words about how God is still in control and has everything planned out perfectly for each person, how we can still choose happiness and light even amidst the darkest of our days, and how we have, within each of us, a well of joy, love, and peace no one and nothing in this world can take from us.

 …

"...my hope is that every time you open this, you experience the joy, peace, love, and happiness that I send to you and the people around you hope to make you feel every single day."

“…my hope is that every time you open this, you experience the joy, peace, love, and happiness that I send to you and the people around you hope to make you feel every single day.”

 …

I requested my mother to take this card to Ms. L. yesterday, which she did. Again, I did not want to be present as Ms. L. received it, as I knew I would be puddle on the floor if I were there too. In addition to that, I have this preference of remaining unseen as my gift is given to its receiver—kindof weird, but it’s just something I’ve always preferred since I was a child.

 …

Upon getting back home yesterday, my mother told me what happened when she gave the card to Ms. L. She relayed to Ms. L. that I had made a personalized card for her, and when she took it out, Ms. L. cried. My mother cried, too. As my mother told that part to me, I said, “See? If I was there, I would’ve cried too!”

I felt my tears well up as my mother continued her story. She said that she read Ms. L. the message and quotes in the card, and halfway through, Ms. L. said, “Daw nagmag-an akon matyag ah, kay kanami sg mga message,” (“I feel lighter inside, because the messages are nice”). Ms. L. then called to someone outside her room to bring her bread and an orange drink, which she then ate and drank. At this part, my mother was already crying as she was telling the story to me. I thought I was doing a darn good job of holding my tears back, but then I felt a side of my nose get colder, and as I touched it, I recognized tears had already fallen from my eyes without me realizing it.

My mother said Ms. L. had her put the card beside the Bible at her bedside, saying that if anybody came to visit her and was lonely, she would ask them to read it. She then invited my mother to another get-together this Sunday, this time for a smaller group of just her closest friends and family, and again asked her to bring me to the occasion.

 …

I think this time, I’ll go.

· • ·

 …

“Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was, let it be spoken without effect, without the trace of a shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was; there is unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.” — Henry Scott Holland

 …

· • ·

I have always wondered what’s there to life, really, when all of us are only passing here but once and will all soon be gone. In the words of Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” For myself, I hope to live a life that can inspire others. I hope for people who have given up to once again regain hope and find the motivation to go on. I hope for those who are hurting to find healing. I hope for those who think they’re worthless to see how they matter in this world, and how, in Mother Teresa’s words, “the ocean would be less without that one drop” that every person is. I hope for people to be the best that they can possibly be, so that at the end of their lives, in Erma Bombeck’s words, they might say to God, “I used up everything You gave me.”

 …

Whether or how I am going to accomplish that in this lifetime still remains to be seen. But I am quite sure that however it shall unfold, it will still inevitably involve words and my love for words. After all, words are all I have, and all I can offer.

 …

A death I’ve read about just this week was that of the young writer Marina Keegan. She died before her time, so to speak, at the tender age of 22, in a car crash only 5 days after graduating from Yale. She never got to write and publish a book while she was still alive, but the essays and stories she wrote mainly while she was in Yale were post-humously published in the book The Opposite of Loneliness.

 …

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.” — Marina Keegan

 …

If I, too, die young and never get to publish a book myself, I think I might like something like that done for me, too. As to who writes the Introduction/Foreword for it is largely a matter of who I was closest to in the immediate time before my death—if sometime in the next 20 years, it will have to be my mother; if she too is gone by then or for whatever reason cannot do it, then it will have to be my life partner or one of my children; if I had not found a life partner or gotten to have kids by then, then it will have to be by my best friend.

  …

“But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.” — Anne Lamott

  …

I have always said that if given a choice, I would rather have a death that’s sudden, than one that’s expected and waited for as I ail in my deathbed. In the event I am in a coma and purely on life support, I would rather have the plug pulled. And I would like to be an organ donor, too.

  …

Talking about death doesn’t always have to be a depressing thing. Death is a reality of life; it will come for each of us, one way or another, one time or the next. But I say that not to rob anyone of optimism or happiness, or paralyze anyone from living fully. On the contrary, I say that in the hope of making everyone recognize how truly short our time here is, and how each moment we live is a privilege. I talk about death to make me feel more grateful about life, to remind me to live more fully each day, and to refocus my life on what truly matters—love and friendship, sincerity and integrity of soul, humanity and goodness of heart, and kindness done for another in this world.

 …

“Do not stand at my grave and weep;

I am not there. I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glints on snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain.

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry;

I am not there. I did not die.”

— (source ambiguous: Mary Frye/Stephen Cummins)

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