When the Grim Reaper is Stealing Center Stage We Must illuminate the Life Force

“That we must all die, we always knew; I wish I had remembered it sooner.”
Samuel Johnson: Letter to Sir Joshua Reynolds (1709-1784)

This week is the anniversary of the death of my beloved father. Death has once again moved into the foreground for me. These days Death is in a close-up shot constantly; rarely does it move into my peripheral view.

While my father was alive, he truly tried to live each moment to the fullest. One of my dad’s favorite inspirational speakers from years ago was Leo Buscaglia, also known as Dr. Love. Bernie loved Buscaglia’s Seize the Moment point of view. He liked this quote especially: “Life lived for tomorrow will always be just a day away from being realized.”

Leo Buscaglia would tell a story about how his Italian mama kept a jar that she would fill with extra coins and when Leo’s papa would get laid off, she would break open the jar, spend the money preparing a bounteous meal and have a party. Their family would celebrate together especially when things looked bleakest. You never knew what new delight would replace the gloom. This story inspired my father. If there was bad news, he’d say, “So let’s go out to dinner!”

I am trying to make creative beautiful meals for me, my husband and son when I have the energy, lifting myself up out of the heaviness, serving it in the dining room with pretty place settings…just because. This is what my father would have wanted. Before we dig in, we try to take a moment to be grateful, acknowledging that we are blessed to be able to do this in the comfort of our home. We even comment on how my dad would rate the dinner- always enthusiastically, to be sure. After all, this meal could be our last.

The Native American poet, N. Scott Momaday, writes in A STORY OF LIGHT,

“When the leaves turn

And the light of the forest deepens,

I will remember a thousand words between us.”

I have so many memories of finding a moment to rejoice with my parents even in the darkest of times. And to laugh. To laugh and cry at the same time.

Death is in our faces constantly each day during this present pandemic. We hear the newscasters tell us “Seven hundred people died of the Covid-19 virus in New York City in one day. That’s a person every two minutes. And that’s just in New York City.” Death is everywhere. Always has been. And the Grim Reaper is center stage right now. Maybe there is some strange blessing in that. Maybe it is good to look that Grim Reaper right square in the eyes.

Unless we are given a fatal diagnosis, I would venture to say that most of us push death as far into the background as possible. Even when we know we are dying we may not want to embrace that. I remember my mother lying frail in her hospice bed in my home, as she neared her end looking up at me with incredulous and startled eyes- “I’m dying? I’m really dying?!!!” Even at death’s door she found it hard to believe. It’s hard to face Death straight on.

I know since the days of the quarantine I am always surprised at what I will feel each morning. Yesterday I woke up, a tight anxious feeling in my chest, and just wanted to go back to bed. Unless I have my clients booked in early, what difference does it make if I do sleep in? This morning I woke up energized and eager to write. One moment I think about all the things I want to do before I die, the legacy I want to leave behind. The next moment I feel hopeless and ask myself, “What’s the point?” I think of Vladimir from Samuel Beckett’s play saying to his companion, Estragon, “I can’t go on.” (pause) “What have I just said?”

I move from sad, to loving and compassionate to angry then righteous and finally riled up in the span of an hour. What am I clinging to? What must I let go of? I meditate on the meaning of life then go numb in front of some popular tv show. I take a healthy physical distancing walk on a bike path wearing my mask, then come home with a spurt of energy only to collapse like a slug perusing social media. I am all over the place.

What if it all is ok? What if I could lower my bar right now, stop pressuring myself to do things right, and accept that all of this is part of life and death?

What if I could allow all these reactions to the present circumstances to be just fine, whether the Grim Reaper is breathing down my neck or not?

And finally, like Leo Buscaglia’s momma, what if I could celebrate the dark with the light, audaciously, with no regrets?