Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better then they stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
- John Donne
George passed away two years ago today.
Many assume that this is a difficult time, and many have asked me if I am bearing up well, and I assure them that I am. I am not sad. It has been a week of reflection, a week of introspection, and yet also a week filled with peace. Grief is forever, but although we always hold those we have loved and lost in our hearts, the time of mourning fades. Today is a day of honor and memory but the pain of loss has been blunted by time.
But then, in many ways I was lucky. I lost my friend, my companion, my lover, my soul-mate. I lost him gradually, over a long period of time. And death was both the final blow and the release. For in death George was released from his long slow decline, was released from the indignity of living with a body which he could no longer control, a body which could no longer control itself. In death George was released from pain.
I was lucky in the very slowness of that loss even though I did not necessarily always see it as luck at the time. In fact, I wasted far too much time in angry self-pity, wasted too much time railing against fate and God, wasted too much time wanting my old life back and resenting what had been taken from me. I see now that all that anger and grief was necessary. I see now that I was given a very special gift: I was allowed to both grieve and celebrate the life of my husband simultaneously. I believed that letting go of my anger and myself I was helping George, but by letting go, I was also allowing him to help me, allowing myself to begin to heal.
I knew I would marry George the second or third time I met him. Apparently he too felt that same pull, that same knowledge, that this was meant to be. That doesn't mean that it was always easy. Does not mean that we were always happy, but it does mean that we both knew that there was some something worth fighting for, something worth hanging on to through thick and thin, loss and yes, even death. You see, although I didn't want to lose George, and George certainly didn't want to lose me, didn't want to die, we both knew that death was inevitable. Life is filled with death, with horror and tragedy, but through it all life also offers opportunities for love. And love transforms us and transcends death. Losing George, fighting that battle with him, being there for him, loving him, taught me about the spiritual side of life through death, or is it the spiritual nature of death through life? Through losing George I allowed myself to see what I always knew was there, to experience in my heart and my soul what I had previously known only in my head, not in that completely accepting, open, and pure way that one can only find through suffering, through loss, through death.
When George was dying I was accused of wanting him to die, told he was only dying because I wanted to be rid of him, be free. It was not true that I wanted to be free; it was not true that I wanted him to die, wanted to lose him. But I did know that it was time for him to die. All things die, all of us must die, and George was ready, finally ready. It was his time. His body was failing, was incapable of the most simple and necessary functions to maintain life. His body was failing and worst of all, despite his dementia, he knew it, knew it with a peace and clarity that stuns me to this day. George taught me how to die.
That doesn't mean I was ready to live without him. Life as a couple takes it own form. One is oneself, but at the same time one is both less than and more than merely oneself. For a long time I didn't know quite know who I was supposed to be, how I was supposed to live. To all outward purposes I was the same person I had always been, but each day a decision had to be made, a decision to accept being myself, only myself. Hilary Mantel captures a sense of that sense of lost self well in this passage from Wolf Hall:
There were days, not too long past, days since Lizzie died, when he'd woken in the morning and had to decide, before he could speak to anybody, who he was and why. There were days when he'd woken from dreams of the dead and searching for them. When his waking self trembled, at the threshold of deliverance from his dreams.
Eventually I found myself again. More exactly I rediscovered the path of finding myself. We are always finding ourselves; if we stop looking, stop searching, stop growing, we begin to die. But those we have loved are also always a part of us. They are present in our hearts, in who we are, in the ways we have become the people we have become. I believe George is present wherever he is now, and somehow, at times, his shadow touches mine. Death is merely an interruption, a short trip to a distant land where we will at some point be reunited, will be reunited with all who loved us, all who we loved.
Without death there is no life. Now is a time for life. And yet, "Death, thou shalt die".