……It’s the sharp knife of a short life
Well, I’ve had
just enough time – “If I Die Young”, The Band Perry
It’s neither rush hour nor school closing time so I’m surprised by the swell of traffic as I head down the road to class. I’m in my usual hurry. I don’t linger in cars. On a wet grey day in Nashville it’s mandatory to use headlamps so I don’t think see anything unusual about the stream of white beams. I look for police lights in the distance to signal an accident or stalled car but see nothing. I think the school I’m approaching may be having an event. I need to get across a couple of lanes to take a right turn and cut through the traffic to discover I’m in the middle of a funeral procession.
I’m horrified that I just disrespected the dead and grieving and more than a little chagrined to note that I’m driving a car that marks me in a red Subaru with RBLYOGA plates and Active Yoga plastered in a sign across the back window that was a gift from a student long ago. Nice, I think, look at the yoga teacher crashing the funeral line: Very nice.
Nashville takes its dead seriously. As the deceased makes the final tour, traffic stops in both directions and waits for the last car to pass. A police escort leads the procession but does not stop traffic. It just stops. It’s the only instance I can think of where strangers routinely stop short in their tracks for an isolated moment of collective silence. The bond of being a lone observer whispering, “Rest in peace” to a passing stranger amongst a random scattering of other strangers doing the same, has a profound effect on me. I ‘m alone and connected; both stranger and comrade in a moment of tender respect that I imagine even the newly departed can feel.
I pay no mind to the strangers that pass me in cars every day, all day but the gravitas of one passing once gone, stops me in my tracks. And why is that? Does death make us bigger than life? Where people are ambiguous in life, they seem most definite in death.
Funny when you’re dead how people start listening
I’m in a Bones workshop in an old church meeting room. There is an orange traffic cone sitting on the floor by the door. It says FUNERAL. We are lying on the floor urged to be as still as the waking dead. The teacher asks us to move thoughtfully. She tells us her teacher who created the Bones work, Ruthie Alon, says; don’t think you know this leg. You don’t know this leg! I silently agree that you don’t know much of this body or even this mind as it’s constantly changing and by that logic you don’t entirely know anyone else either, even those closest to you.
A friends’ twenty year old son died from a combination of alcohol and pills at a fraternity party last weekend. He was twenty. I met him but I didn’t know him. I think of my own sons, of my friends sons. Don’t think we know these boys. We don’t know them. I can’t get the words of the death song out of my mind. The lyrics playing in my head all night are driving me crazy. I’m putting them here to be rid of them though this was not the intention of this writing when I began it.
It’s the sharp knife of a short life
Well I’ve had
Just enough time
My son’s friend and band mate, also the child of a friend of mine is INCARCERATED. He is twenty. He held up a friend’s mother with a fake gun after taking a bottle of anti-depressants. He apologized the next day and gave the money back but charges were pressed. He’s on the second of seven years. I spoke to his mother last week who says she isn’t sure she can stand her life anymore. She tells me she feels like a pariah. She’s the mother of a convict. People stay away. But they don’t know this beautiful woman. Don’t even think they do. The lyrics in my head accompany her story as she goes on.
Life ain’t always what you think it ought to be…
Sharp knife of a short life
Well I’ve had just enough…….
I tell her about the other boy who overdosed and say that at least her son is alive. She tells me she’s not so sure. She says she doesn’t even know him anymore though she sees him every week. She says that he’s a drug addict and she’s not sure that he’s clean in jail. She’s not sure his life isn’t over. She’s not sure he’s entirely alive.
He did not have enough time and you don’t know this boy, this sweet, creative, mess of a boy. We wrote letters to the blind eyes of the justice system. Don’t think you know this boy, you don’t know him.
I wasn’t raised with the bait of Heaven or the threat of Hell. Heaven was a life well lived and Hell was a guilty conscience. I don’t know much of death. My curious morbidity makes me choose the better way to deal with a loved one’s remains. I contemplate earth, fire and water and comfort myself that we are all of those and might do well do be consumed by any of them in the end. But I don’t know and I think I don’t know this life and I don’t know this death either.
Whether we’re uncertain how to make the most of ourselves to make the most of this life or what happens when we leave there are messages and messengers to help us. They beg our attention.
My friend Sandy has been called to help several friends pass from this life. She told me of the passing of a local musician whose wife had gone two months prior. Sandy saw his face slowly change as death began. She saw a light around him then and then there was another light and in it his deceased wife. She came for him and they were gone.
My friend Preston sat at his grandfather’s death bed with his hand on the old man’s chest. He asked his grandfather for a sign from the other side. Grandfather’s eyes turned a brilliant blue, and Preston says he felt his grandfather shoot through his arm and pass through him.
My own grandparents followed each other out of here in their 90’s a couple of years apart. I was not there for either of their last days and even much in their last years. But awhile after my grandfather went they came to me in a dream. It was funny to me that my elegant grandparents were driving a Volkswagen bus! They seemed really happy and although I remember being a little worried they were coming for me I later thought they were letting me know the bus would be there when I was ready. Just a dream but…..I don’t know. Most of us have heard some after life account or imagining.
Where people are ambiguous in life, they seem definite in death but it’s the definite of a clock that has stopped ticking. It seems definite because we notice it. It seems definite because we are no longer slippery or changing. But we are not definite at all. Don’t think we know this soul, we don’t know this soul! We are bigger than life. While we are amazed at ourselves in life, we are struck dumb with wonder of who we are in death. We believe in answers that we may never know.
When someone dies we stop to comfort the grieving whom we might otherwise take for granted until their passing! We stop to show respect for the life of a fellow spirit. But perhaps we mostly stop to behold the mystery.
(Published in Elephant Journal)