There is a last time for everything. I read a thing on the internet once, and it said something like: There was a day your parents set you down, and then never picked you up again.
If you’re reading these words, chances are excellent that you’ve reached that part of your life. You’ve also probably gone past the last time you ever jumped off a swing or slid down a slide on a playground, barring some of those golden moments where parents are able to borrow a fleeting moment of youth from their child who needs “help”.
If that is the case: there will come a day when you set your child down, and never pick them up again. All things end. Memento mori, valar morghulis, et cetera.
Death is a hard thing to contend with, because it is so far outside our frame of reference. Indeed, its existence marks one of the outer boundaries of that frame.
Thinking of a person as dead means nothing. Thinking that they are gone is a bit easier to conceive of, though it does not convey the finality of the matter. To me, the easiest way to wrap my head around death is to think of it in terms of milestones in the progression through life: there was a point in my life before which I had not met this person, and there is or will come a point in my life past which I will not meet them again.
I found myself thinking this when we touched down in Baltimore, the day after the funeral for Jack’s mother. This after several days of being around the grieving family, and a rosary and a funeral mass and all the final farewells, none of which made the sheer, simple fact of death itself feel any less weird or fake to me.
(But as Christians, are we not called to believe that death is weird and fake?)
I found myself thinking this, and I found myself thinking: this. This is that part. The part of my life where I won’t see her again, talk to her again, meet her again. We’ve reached that part.
That was when I grieved, and that was when I understood. I grieved because I understood and I understood because I grieved.
When Sesame Street dealt with the death of Mr. Hooper, this is how the adults on the show explained it to a confused Big Bird, who had never encountered death before: he was never coming back. Never ever. No one could explain to him what death was, or why it was. (“Because,” was the best answer they had. “Just because.”) We can’t contend with death, but we can just about handle never.
Time, like death, is weird and fake. As I understand it, it is in very loose terms a side effect of living in a universe with a finite amount of light that can’t quite manage to exist everywhere at once, for whatever meaning “everywhere” and “at once” can hold in a universe where time is fake. Everything that can happen, has happened and is happening. Our perception of this weird, fake phenomenon is subjective even by the poor standards of our senses (which are also weird and fake), and our ability to remember its passage is even worse.
And yet, we can take comfort in knowing that the times that existed between the point where someone entered our life and when they departed it are as real and vital and current as the times we perceive as happening now.
As my father once told me:
“I’m with Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians from Slaughterhouse Five, who see in four dimensions. Time stretches out like a mountain range, with the past present and future all visible all the time. The future is always there, always out there, always coming. When we are surprised, it is not because anything changed: it is because something unexpected that was always there became visible to us. And the past is equally always there.
It will always be that joyous moment, 10 o’clock on the night of the 4th of July, 1971 at the McDonalds
on 40th Street when I reunited with your mother for the last time. I was 15 and she almost was. And it will always be a sunny afternoon at the beach at Okoboji, playing with our babies. And it will always be sunset at Honeymoon Island, always. And we will always be walking down Main Street at the Magic Kingdom, with various combinations of our children.”
Thinking about this makes me feel better. I don’t mean to say that it makes me feel happier or more peaceful or more content (at least not yet), but better. It allows me to grieve more deeply, more acutely, and with greater precision.
Doctor Who — a show that is about mortality about as often as it’s about anything else — had a running theme for a few years: every Christmas is last Christmas. For any family or group of friends who gather together, there will come a time when all of them are together for the last time, and no one will know it when it happens. Another thing my father told me is, “Life is made up of meetings and partings, that is the way of it.” He was quoting Muppet Christmas Carol, of course, but that did not rob the moment of any of its pathos.
Part of growing up, part of growing older, I think is realizing that. Realizing that every time you go to your favorite restaurant might be the last time. Your favorite show will go off the air. Your treasured concert t-shirt will fade and tear and eventually become unwearable.
And every person who comes into your life will pass out of it.
I can make no sense of death. I can at least understand the concept of an ending, even if I don’t approve of it.
So it goes.