The starkest truth is, in its nature, unretainable. We have to work so hard to remember what is most basic. For me this fall, my truth has been that life is fragile. That it does, indeed, end. That end is so shockingly permanent. I cannot grasp it for long. It is too painful to retain, yet we all know it to be truest of all. This fall, I have been reminded repeatedly.
Could we function if we were to dwell on this truth? How silly the laundry seems, how overwhelmingly impossible to turn a pile of food into a meal when the fragility of life is at hand. Why is it that we stop living when reminded that death can come in an instant?
While Dan and I were engaged, he had two jobs that kept the truth regarding the fragility of life alive in my consciousness. I would keep trying to forget, but every day he worked was saturated with death. He was acting as a hospital chaplain, and would often come to me in tears after sitting with a family going through the unthinkable, the unretainable. There was a baby who died after knowing life only for a few moments. The devastated parents asked Dan to do the funeral. A fifteen year old boy, twin, bled out and died suddenly. Dan sat with the family for days on end, unable to find words of comfort. They thanked him for the dignity of his silence. I stood weeping in front of my fifteen year old students the next morning in class. They looked at me funny. I was just so glad they were all alive. Feeling invincible, a weeping teacher was unhelpful to them.
Dan’s time sitting with families in the hospital was an unpaid internship, so for money he worked for a contractor of a funeral home. He was the muscle. When people died, he would pick up the bodies and drive them to the funeral home for preparation. He spent that year silently slipping in and out of hospitals, nursing homes, and private residences busying himself with the tangible details of death. Every time his beeper went off, the unretainable truth would force its way to the front of my mind. There was another body that needs to be tended to. It happened at every hour of the day, every day of the week. Even on Christmas. Death does not stop.