Reflections (and feelings) on the Realization that I, too, must die!
I was sitting with my dermatologist discussing the inanity of the typical sixteen year old know it all who sits upon a hot beach getting terribly blistered and insists the whole thing is “really cool and hip.” The gangly adenoidal youth imagines he is truly “with it.” I am embarrassed to admit that this ridiculous and uninformed posture was similar to my own at sixteen . It was somewhat akin to the nutty craze of my adolescence that the height of “class” was wearing saddle brown shoes while pretending to smoke a pipe.
Now bald and pale skinned , about seven decades later, at 93 , I share with my doctor my great insight that since I consider such beach behavior incredibly stupid “I must be getting old “. She shocked me by responding: “ Correction, Father, You are old.” But how could this be? Being old happens to other people . I am young Jimmy Lloyd. I am not really old— right now I am only 93 and –well- you know—years are just a statistic, anyway!
But the nagging indices of stiff, aching legs, the omnipresent urge to fall asleep as soon as I sit down, anywhere, and the need I have of saying “eh?” to every conversation are cutting through this commonplace denial. I am getting a message! I am close to the end of my sojourn on this planet. Andy Rooney, the crusty old battle axe of “ Sixty Minutes”, was asked when he was 92, did he ever think about his own death” He replied “ yes and I hate it!” It is a rare being, I think, who looks eagerly ahead to his personal dissolution with a “ hot diggity—hotdog “ attitude. The great saints perhaps. And their like, but for the most part, we mortals dread the day of our death. Most of us need to put our houses “in order.” Most of us need to have some kind of even half resolution on this matter, even though denial and dodging honest focusing is a badge of our human tribe.
Those of us who believe in an after life—an eternity with a loving Lord have a leg up on this human challenge. The idea of a life without end while intellectually mind boggling is nevertheless appealing. There is, in the average person, some kind of powerful wish to live forever. Is that wish implanted by God? Is there some kind of “connect” between the wish and the reality? Human analogies abound from an eternal land of milk and honey festooned with gorgeous virgins all the way to the bliss of gazing upon the Face of the God of us all.
It is said that old men dream dreams and young men have visions. While I am keenly aware of the delightful electronics of this modern age, the speed and ease of today’s travel, the access to art and literature, the cornucopia of apparently endless supply of any kind of data, the glorious, contemporary food, and my own strong wish to “do it all”, I am flooded now with more pressing needs. Various commentators on authentically living one’s life often have a final level of maturity focusing on “integration” as a way of finding meaning in what one has experienced. This is my present “obsession”. Youth is obsessed with the doing of things -- with the tasting of the delicacies of Life. This may explain some reluctance of dying—that there are so many things and experiences I would still like to have but which are now impossible! Yet, in old age, it is the seeking real, personal answers which absorbs one’s soul. So I retrospect. I assess where I have been, where I am and where I am going.
Although coming from a densely populated area in a very large American city, my character formation was provincial. We were highly influenced, almost saturated with an Irish Catholic ethos. For me and my sister we were somewhat diluted by having a Jewish father. We were, apparently, poor. I was the prototypic “dirty necked kid from the West side”. Nonetheless, our values, our spirituality, our humor, our fears were thoroughly colored by this total community value system. Our school, our church, our park were all within a 1/4 of a mile of each other. It was possible to remain within those parameters for days, even weeks and feel no need to go elsewhere. The unspoken goals were largely centered on survival, physical, social, spiritual. Paramount, however was the notion of “saving my soul.”
As far back as I can remember, that notion clearly implied survival after death. This survival, though largely undefined, carried a profound sense of unending beauty and joy, so delightful and glorious that one would be willing to forego one’s own life in this world rather than lose “one’s soul.” So endless stories of brave men and women were told us as children, wherein terrible tortures and afflictions were loaded on these people who at their Martyr‘s death went straight to God for “eternal happiness.” This happiness is obliquely described by the apostle Paul as “The eye hath not seen nor the ear heard what things God has prepared for those who love Him.” This eschatological view had enormous impact on my adult and professional life. It gave a transcendental meaning to everything I did, saw, heard and encountered. It could all be lost should one die in what was called “mortal sin”, mortal meaning deadly.
My life as a student, Priest, teacher, media person, psychologist has been extremely fulfilling. Professionally, socially, interpersonally. I have known “success”. I have hit innumerable pastoral “home runs”. I have published. I have had friends. Real friends. Men and women. From every class and religion and political persuasion. I have travelled in strata, both physical and social, which in my childhood days I would have considered totally unavailable to me, a mere day dream. I have traveled the world on freighters and jets and dirty railroads and buses. Europe over 30 times. The veldt of Africa many times. The enchantment of Jerusalem. The vastness of Australia. The list would be endless.
There is something thrilling about “being there” after having seen the wonders only in books and movies and my own fantasies. To experience the Sistine chapel and the sphinx and Notre Dame and Victoria Falls and Sydney harbor and Madrid’s Plaza de los toros was breathtaking.. I have enjoyed so many meals with exhilarating conversation. But even more than travel,. It has been people. The joy of interaction with others has been tagged as the real source of human happiness. The Big Tycoon with the exciting episodes of making big money seems utterly fulfilled in his board room. But he, too, in quiet times, wonders what really matters! Maybe, in the depth of the soul each of us secretly knows that it is Love that matters.
The plaintive question of Tevyev of Fiddler on the Roof to his wife “Golda, do you love me?” sums it up. Without love, there can be no joy. So have I been blessed by my early Indoctrination that God in Jesus loves me implacably with a passion beyond my ken. So even amidst the turbulence of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ I have been, not repulsed by the gory Hollywoodian depiction, but moved almost to speechlessness by the graphic depiction of what He did for me even were I the only human being ever to have lived. So, He tells me that perfect love casts out fear! And as my Church guides me through this dark valley She teaches me that all my sins have been forgiven with one heartfelt expression of love for the Father as I lament my past with deep, deep resolution for my future atonement as I realize how much He loves me!
It is this love which is the real answer to fear of dying. Connect this with a Faith in Him which never wavers and a total trust that He means what He says and one has an approach to one’s own death which is workable. But feeling loved is essential for peace in dying.I one feels unloved and forgotten and lonely. Augustine in his Confessions (or testimonies) teaches “Thou has made us for Thyself O God and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” While one can never shed the first law of Human Nature, instinctive reflex for survival, the question of Tevyev “ Am I loved”? Am I?
Why do specialists in Death and Dying often suggest that we whisper into the ear of the dying: “I love you”? A life lived without love is a terrible thing. But If one believes that death brings us into the eternal arms of God in unspeakable undefinable love which lasts forever, it loses some of its sting and fear. , nor can one live totally free of all negative