In modern American society, it seems the common wish when people contemplate death is that they go quickly, with little suffering and no time to be distressed about the situation. If my remembrance of history is correct, people have in the past prayed the opposite, that death would not come unless one had time to prepare his or her heart and bid goodbye to loved ones.
My life has probably been touched by death to an average degree for someone my age. On one hand, both my mother, who died when I was 12, and my father, who died when I was 20, went before their time, and likely were not in a good place. On the other hand, when my grandmother and sister-in-law passed away, death came as merciful; it was time for their suffering to end.
I have been thinking about death a bit recently. Maybe it’s because I am helping prepare a care package for a friend whose wife, age 33, passed away during childbirth a few months ago. Or maybe it’s because I have been preparing my will just this week. I hope, though, that my thoughts and feelings have less temporal origins.
Henry David Thoreau said, “What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” I haven’t achieved nearly all the goals I have set out for myself. I think, however, that I’ve become a person who could accept death were it to come. (This reminds me of a conversation I once had with Bill Rodgers, 3-time winner of the Boston Marathon. I asked him, when he knew he was no longer competing to win, if he accepted it gracefully or fought against it. He said, “It didn’t matter because that was how it was going to be in any case.”)
Certain things make accepting the inevitability of death easier. Perhaps it’s the faith that there’s more to our experience than what our senses perceive; what we see and feel isn’t all there is to reality. Maybe it’s the feeling, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, that if I find in myself desires that nothing in this earth can satisfy, then it must be that I wasn’t made for here.
I think, though, it’s more simple than that. The fact is that the only lasting legacy is love. I hope I have given myself in such a way that my family and the friends I have come to regard as family will in some way always know I love them and perhaps be a little different because of the time we’ve shared.
This morning a dear friend and I ran in the pre-dawn through a magical world of lights, sculptures, fellow runners, and a sky that was at first stars and then sunrise coming from the east. I hope to live another several decades and repeat that run a hundred more times. If my demise were to come, however, I know that I could leave peacefully. I’m ready now.