Lots to learn about life, death, from developing world

June 23, 2010

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‘Would you know my name if I saw you in Heaven?’ — Eric Clapton, Tears in Heaven

MONTREAL ♦ We’re some 35,000 feet in the air nearing Pierre Trudeau International Airport and this is the conversation:

“The more I fly, the more I tell myself this will be the last time.”

This, from Suzanne, a stranger one seat over beside a window on this Air Canada Flight 414 from Toronto, a 30ish brunette with wide-framed Calvin Klein glasses wondering aloud why she didn’t take the train. She’s an obstetrician from St. Thomas, where I worked as a reporter for a dozen years before my new life as a writer who flies regularly to live and work in Africa.

With my wife, Jean, also an obstetrician, we discover we’re all heading to the same place in Montreal — the annual meeting of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada.

“Have you seen the movie Fearless?” I ask Suzanne.


“You should,” I say, giving the details. Jeff Bridges plays a heroic survivor of a plane crash. Suffering post-traumatic stress, he gets fixated on existential questions, the big questions we have on life, death, God and the afterlife. In his psychoses he becomes unusually fearless. He’s not entirely well. But, for the first time, he also feels truly alive.

Suzanne nods and I return to my newspapers and magazines, a stack that’s filled with both the living and the dead. A toddler is run over. A pregnant woman is killed. Such is the news.

Sometimes a death — like that of trooper Larry Rudd, Brantford’s courageous son killed in Afghanistan — brings a community together like nothing else. Then
there are always the obits to remind us of life’s brevity.

The only reference I find to the afterlife is on page 65 of en route magazine. A finely manicured white poodle is eyeing a delectable display of food. The caption reads “Heaven surely looks something like this spread.”

We have goofier images of Heaven: cherubs playing harps on fluffy clouds or Saint Peter waiting at the pearly gates. Pop culture gives us Homer Simpson arriving only to be told the giant waterslide isn’t yet finished.

But most of us sense somethingmore substantial and generous. A Reader’s Digest poll shows almost four in five Canadians believe Heaven exists. That’s in the middle of 16 countries surveyed. (About two in five Canadians believe in Hell.)

We believe not through religious instruction but rather because of an instinct that’s hard-wired into us, like a child in the womb who senses some grand world outside his dark closet.

We’re quiet about it, this passing-away business. It’s different in Africa where the Grim Reaper might as well live next door. Africans live in the other extreme, not in a culture of fear but of fatalism. If malaria or AIDS or the unknown doesn’t kill you, a traffic accident will.

In Uganda, I once drove past the twisted body of a dead bicyclist left underneath a truck wheel. While plenty of rubberneckers and time passed, nobody bothered to cover it. Even in stable African countries, life is often cheap.

So how do many Africans cope?

By holding dearly onto that sense of eternity. Funerals may have intense grieving and wailing. In Uganda they’re daylong affairs where community expectations run high for hard-found money to be spent on extras. But there’s rarely a soul present who couldn’t sing to you about his or her hope in Heaven
with their Creator.

I wish Africans planned better for the here-and-now in all kinds of ways.

I wish that body on that Ugandan road would be covered. But I also wish that westerners, with all our distractions, would see that we don’t just need to rescue developing nations. We need to learn from them.

I’m in the lobby of Montreal’s Sheraton Hotel on René Lévesque Boulevard. Several floors up, some of those Canadian obstetricians have discussed
what you’ve recently seen in the headlines, how to best save the developing world’s dying mothers and children.

It’s very good and necessary.

Since we’re so close, so is pondering these other related things. Like the long tomorrow and flying without fear.

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June 23, 2010 • Posted in ,
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