Certain life events break through the mundane of the day-to-day to remind us we are eternal beings, created for eternity with a significance to match. When we experience them, we are reminded of both the fleeting nature of life as well as its weightiness - and if we're fortunate we learn from them and change. Two such events earlier this year, barely a month apart, did just that for me.
The first was the birth of my second daughter on January 5th. After a busy couple of days she arrived in a whirlwind at Northside Atlanta at around 9:30 and it took my breath away just like the birth of my first daughter. It really is miraculous - hearing them cry for the first time, seeing them blink at their first view of light, locking eyes for the first time - and it is as if time stands still. You breathe in, breathe out and try to savor these first few moments of life. Something that had changed since the birth of our first daughter was that the hospital had implemented a new "golden hour" where you can bond with your child with no interruption for the first hour. We had tried to do this last time to no avail - so we were happy to get to read a book to her (Where the Wild Things Are) and cuddle some. In those moments we tried to take in the weight of bringing another precious life into the world -- the weight of showing them life, love, grace and the meaning of it all.
A little over a month later I was in another hospital room, this time visiting my wife's grandfather. After a couple of falls and a visit to rehab he was dealing with a myriad of infections and had ended up in a hospital close to our house. With family in town and a newborn at home, I had not had a chance to visit him yet - so I ventured over during nap time on Sunday, Feb 11th. When I arrived he was laying in bed, mouth agape looking towards the ceiling; his oldest daughter sat by the bed on the phone. After tapping his arm and speaking to him, I had a funny feeling. He had not been responsive the last few days, but... then his daughter hung up the phone and checked him. "I think we lost him, Scott" she said to me. Indeed, he had passed moments before I came in the room. We embraced and stood in shock - even though he was 92 and very sick, everything about death is unnatural to the human soul. We let the nurse know, called family, and tried to deal with the reality that he was gone now.
I don't recall ever being in the room when (or right after) someone had died. It shook me because, as I said, it's unnatural. We were made as eternal beings, created for life and we live most of our days under the delusion that we'll live forever. But death is a reality, we all will die one day - as hard to believe as it may be.
I went on a retreat the month after Grandpa died with some good friends and the subject we studied was the value in contemplating our own deaths. My friend David had read a book recently that had helped him explore this. I actually helped him prepare some of the material that we studied, so I thought more on this in the days leading up to the retreat as well. He had us read an awesome article that summarized the book (The Denial of Death) the premise being that we are all driven by a fear of death, seeking immortality through living lives of impact, meaning or even showing our significance through what we can destroy. I recounted to my friends my experience the previous month, and how even literally staring death in the face, it was still hard to believe. It was a beneficial weekend to sit in nature, consider the finitude of life and be with friends.
That would normally be enough examples for a tidy post, but this is my blog and I have more, so I'm going to keep writing.
Couldn't have said it better myself. And this thought is echoed in Scripture:
The fact that we are not immortal makes us make the days count for something more- to invest in relationships, be kind to one another, focus on the intangibles of life that give it deeper meaning rather than building our own kingdoms and accumulating more stuff.
Later in May I got the chance to meet one of my creative heroes, Damon Lindelof, one of the creators and producers of Lost. A bit of a story how I did - I was an extra on his latest creative endeavor which is being shot here in Georgia - and between takes I was near him and asked him a silly question about the famous polarizing finale of that show. He laughed it off which I expected him to do, and went on his way - but I was satisfied. Since then I've been reading more about him online - what inspires him, his creative process, and the back story to his projects. I've been listening to podcast interviews and even re-watching some of my favorite episodes of Lost (Season 3 Finale, The Constant, anyone?). In one of those interviews, he echoed this thought about the intensity of emotions in experiencing death and birth in life:
“I’m 43 years old now, and that’s right at the point in life you start attending just as many christenings as funerals,” he says. “I’ve now seen the grand layout of life. I lost my own father; I am a father … I’m really curious about what I’m supposed to do while I’m here on the planet, and I’m really curious about whether or not this is it. I want to explore that curiosity in the stories that I tell, and I want those stories to be populated by characters who are preoccupied by those ideas.
“Because it’s very profound, death: It’s the most emotionally intense experience. I had the occasion to be present when my son was born, and I was also in the room when my father died. Those events were equally profound and stunning and amazing. I don’t know how I write about anything other than these two things ever again.”
I don't know if I'd say that's where I am - that everything I create will be in this vein - but I can relate to the profundity of these experiences. They impacted me and for the better. In all of these experiences this year, I've learned that left to ourselves we cannot handle the weight of life and death by themselves - we need God to help us appropriate the lessons and truly "teach us to number our days." Our feeble hearts' natural bent is to make it about ourselves and continue to live the lie that we're immortal. But God meets our hearts with what we need -- meaning through being about Him and His glory, making sense of our story in light of His.
I'll leave you with this final thought from Thomas Merton shared with me again from my friend, David:
“If, at the moment of our death, death comes to us as an unwelcome stranger, it will be because Christ also has been to us an unwelcome stranger. For when death comes, Christ comes also, bringing us the everlasting life which He has bought for us by His own death. Those who love true life, therefore, frequently think about their death. Their life is full of a silence that is an anticipated victory over death. Silence, indeed, makes death our servant and even our friend. Thoughts and prayers that grow up out of the silent thought of death are like trees growing where there is no water. They are strong thoughts, that overcome passion and desire. They turn the face of our soul, in constant desire, toward the face of Christ.”