Life is Fragile

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.

That year I moved slowly. The most mundane task required so much will. Then the year was over. Dan started working among the living. I let go of the truth in the name of functionality, so I would not lose all my friends. So I could laugh. So I could work. Until this fall. My mom was healthy and then she had cancer. I was sipping coffee when she told me. My student had two parents and then she had none. I was writing an essay when I found out. My uncle was cracking jokes at Thanksgiving with a one week old diagnosis of stage one cancer and then he was gone. I was checking email when I got the call. He was not at Christmas. This is a truth that is too hard to grasp. When I try to make myself realize it, I cease functioning. I cry at inopportune moments. I search Dan’s face trying to memorize it in case his life is fragile, too. I leave the laundry and the pile of food. When I rejoin the living, I become petrified that the mundane will offend the ones who have left us. Even though I know that is where life really happens.  There is grieving in letting go of the grieving. Letting go of the truth that life is fragile, breakable, so that I can move again, knowing full well the truth will come back to us all.

2 thoughts on “Life is Fragile

  1. Thank you. Beautiful.

    As a pastor whenever I leave a funeral or the space where someone has just died and I rejoin the living I become acutely aware of how the rest of the world just seems to be moving on in monotony. But someone’s someone just died… So, when I rejoin the living I become petrified that the mundane will offend the ones who are grieving all around me and I don’t even know.

    On the day of my wedding I emerged from my aunt’s house in a dream-like state – dress, make-up etc. and we drove to the church, where from that point on my life would change dramatically and forever. And all around me were people in their normal, routine, mundane Saturday. And in that moment of joy, when I rejoined the living I was acutely aware that people have big, important, life-changing days every day while I am doing the mundane. So, when I am among the living I become that my mundane activities will offend someone whose life is about to change and whose joy is beyond measure.

  2. It’s beautiful and incredibly hard. Those moments will stick with me forever, but I’d hate to repeat them.

    The NY Times also ran a great series recently on death, written & edited in part by Ira Glass. I thought is was a nice complement to your reflections.

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