(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, October 15, 2022)
“Be well.” This is what I said to my students.
It was after a recent class. Then they left for the various corners of their lives. We’d just unpacked “Cathedral,” a story by Raymond Carver. He often wrote about broken characters, broken in ways that Carver himself was broken. “Be well.” Then they were gone.
Be well like those people who imagine their own funerals. No, really. They’re out there. I just learned of a woman who took the time to also write her own obituary. Two actually. One fantasy obituary. One not. She was looking at her life honestly to make changes.
It’s on my mind like Thanksgiving leftovers or something for Halloween. Since spring I’ve attended four funerals. Two friends are now also in end-of-life care. So, when I’ve had nothing better to do, I’ve now done it. I’m now one of them, an imaginer of my own funeral. There’s my pine box. People gather. The wind blows.
Providing you’re not overwhelmed by such thoughts, the exercise is essentially a good one. It can help change your direction. Your future. It can also help ground you in today, giving context to your life. It’s not a distraction from reality. It roots you deeper in reality. It’s completely humbling. This is what the science of thanatology, the study of death, shows.
No, there’s nothing like your own impending death to wake you up. One friend who’s in chemo-palliative care, my wife’s best childhood friend, Beth, said as much at a recent wedding. She spoke on the miracle of birth (that tiny pencil-dot of life, a fertilized egg later emerging, somehow, as a fully-developed baby), then the miracle of love, then the miracle of, yes, death.
“I live alongside a rather bleak prognosis, and can attest to the fact that the idea of dying 100 per cent improves my experience of living,” she told us wedding guests. “I’m overwhelmed by the daily luxury of ordinary events. My breakfast, for example. This is seriously the best toast I ever ate. And don’t even get me started on people.”
This was her tribute to the bride and groom. Thank you, Beth. This is what death’s miracle does. It opens a certain splendour into your days. Studies show that if you take a minute to jot down even a few things you’re thankful for, daily, your neuropathways will reroute. You’re awakened to the truth of it, that all moments are key moments.
You may not leave a relationship, move to Peru, become green, or set world records rowing solo across the oceans. Or maybe you will. The woman who wrote those two obituaries? She’s Roz Savage, a Brit, who did these things. Did that bring her life upheaval? Of course.
Then again, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Universities can especially be reminded of this because it’s easy for students to believe the creeping untruth that what doesn’t kill you somehow makes you weaker, that you should avoid anything uncomfortable, any pain, even perceived pain, (good luck with that) at all costs. Studies on resilience show the opposite is needed, some life pushback. With World Mental Health Day recently coinciding with Thanksgiving, it’s a good season to consider it all. Any season is.
Getting back to Carver, his work is one reminder that we’re all broken in one way or another. Cracked pots, really. So if any light is going to shine through us, it will only shine through the broken places. This understanding is another sort of death, a laying down, to help live a more authentic life.
One day in Washington State, near the ocean, I stood at Carver’s gravesite. After a long road of alcoholism and other troubles, he’d turned his final years around. Then his tombstone epitaph: “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”
This too is something.