On The Topic of Death…
It is natural for the living to seriously contemplate death from time to time. Very few will challenge the fact that in this life, youth is the natural beginning and death is the natural end. The only real "experts" on death… I suppose… are those who have experienced it, not simply those who talk to it. Frankly, I've not been in touch with any "experts" recently, so just take this as my best guess.
There are many topics associated with death. I presume that physical "death" is the common destiny of man. It has acquired lots of bad press, for example, as in the image you might picture of the headless horseman of Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame. Death may be attended by friends and relatives, loved ones, or even very important people. It may be caused by suicide, stupidity, accident, old age, deformity, or ignorance, and conducted by self, friend or foe. Death is pondered on over the graves of the great, and mourned about over the graves of the destitute. But it must be endured alone.
I have always been impressed to believe that life doesn't end here, but then I'm no "expert" in the real sense of the word. Not yet, anyway. You'll be an expert too, soon enough, so don't take my word for it. But the process, the act of dying has always concerned me, and today I think more of its importance than I ever have.
I am referring to the action by which a man greets his end, and how he handles that moment. Even an old man who knows death is waiting elects to act out his end in his own way. I think the attitude matters more than the dying, and is often the greatest measure of life.
From time to time, I have thought that I might die of this or that. I have always been lucky and lived through each event before I could back out or run away. I think most servicemen commonly suffer that personality defect (is this the right term?) which requires duty without thought, allowing courage in the face of terrible fear, leaving no other course of action available. It is nearly instinct.
I recently watched a Star Trek where a space being paid his highest complement to a man by saying in his farewell: "…and die with honor…". It coined what I love about living into the few words I think most effectively deliver the message. Like "Semper Fidelis".
A bus driver in Wyoming was caught in a blizzard on the open road with a bus full of children. The seats were burned for heat through the night, but three children froze. Temperatures plummeted. The driver left the bus for help. The older children gave the younger children their coats. Two more children died before help arrived, including the driver's daughter. It is tragic, but the driver had no choice; he was lost and died in the storm.
I had a friend, father of seven. His wife and oldest daughter were out for the evening, and all the remaining six were in bed when a fire broke out. He gathered them into the living room on the ground floor, and set the oldest boy out through a window. As he was handing all the children to the son, his baby boy became very frightened and ran back into the house, crying for his mother. Dad made the boy promise to take all the children away from the house and keep them there. He found the baby, but collapsed in the fire. He could be heard in the house, but could not be reached. They died there together.
This was a very personal loss to me. I was furious. I was enraged. I slammed down the phone and thrashed about the kitchen in tears. I wanted to bash all the cabinets, to scream, to get ahold of something and choke it until we could change this. My wife came running into the kitchen and listened as I anguished over his death. Why had this happened? What purpose had it served? I hate it now as badly as I hated it then. But she listened quietly.
And when I was finished, Gail put her head on my shoulder and whispered the words I needed to hear.
"What would you have done?"
In other words, what else could any honorable man have done? For his baby boy?
I am more certain than ever, now, that honorable death is a very important part of living.
I hope I'm up to it.