A year ago October, I wrote a post on “Life Changers: The Six Kinds of Experience That Blow Your Mind to Bits.” It included a proviso that the six I mentioned—travel, the arts, love, sex, mood-altering substances and children—were hardly an exhaustive list. Which became clearer almost immediately as I hit the “Publish” button, already regretting I had not made it seven items.
How could I discuss life-altering experiences that shake us to our core without mentioning death?
Don’t worry—I won’t compete here in either length or breadth with the entire libraries devoted to the topic from learned battalions of philosophers, theologians and poets.
I will instead focus on one point only, one that frankly, has been something of a revelation to me over the course of my life. It has both compounded the tragedy of someone close to me dying while also immeasurably increasing my appreciation and gratitude for them and for those with whom I am fortunate to continue sharing this life.
My point has to do with realizing the utter singularity and ultimate irreplaceability of every human being.
A common consolation as we hold each other in the aftermath of a beloved relative’s or friend’s death is that we still have each other, that our mutual appreciation is even deepened, that memories of the deceased will continue to live in and sustain us, continue to enrich our lives.
To the degree that we have basked in our love of them, we have grown immeasurably in a “deal” every one of us would sign up for a thousand times again. The net gains of close relationship are a treasure with no possible measure, so vast and heartening they are to our spirit.
All true, but none of that much softens the central reality that human beings are not interchangeable parts. We are not armies that can call in fresh troops, nor machines that can be up and running at full throttle again, missing no more beats, once the new compressor gets shipped from Milwaukee overnight.
Instead, every person in our orbit is an utterly precious universe of one, unlike any other, occupying a place in our hearts and psyches carved out by them alone. We are not quite the same with them as we are with anyone else, so their singularity—combined with our own—makes for the equal singularity of this most curious phenomenon known as human relationship.
And sadly, we will not be quite the same without that person and that relationship, either.
For all the joy we can continue to exult in through this life, I have come to see the tragic and permanent underpinning of loss, something I hadn’t quite reckoned with earlier in my life.
My brother Pete, dead now four years, never to be replaced.
As rich as I am with friends, there is no other “Peteness” (Petenicity?) to be found in this world. There is no corner of the planet where someone with his particular attributes—and how those particular attributes became interwoven and developed with mine —is waiting for me.
Ditto for my old friend Chuck, dead too young too many years ago.
My friend and neighbor Robert, dead suddenly in the prime of his retirement glory.
My parents, of course.
Where these and many other unique personages once were, there are now holes, shadows of a bygone time. Memories alone, with no substitutes filling their place in the lineup of our lives. Others come, certainly. It is not that joy can never again be ours. It is that the particular joys and richness of that person is lost to us and the world.
“Every man’s death diminishes me,” wrote the poet John Donne. The same poem (audio rendition in full below) also contains this less-often-cited but perhaps more germane point to our discussion here:
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
Europe being our hearts, we are indeed the less when one of its pieces, one of our beloveds, is washed away by the surging seas that eventually will reclaim us all. To the degree that we have basked in our love of them, we have grown immeasurably in a “deal” every one of us would sign up for a thousand times again. The net gains of close relationship are a treasure with no possible measure, so vast and heartening they are to our spirit.
But their loss diminishes at least some of that gain. We are far, far more for having known them, but just a little bit less again now for them being gone.
The intense pain eventually scars and heals over (mostly), we can be awash in what they have given us, in the rich waters they have bequeathed, but always with a tinge of sadness for the permanent loss of their singular selves, their personhood that once strode the earth in the particular, incomparable, wholly unique way with which posterity and circumstance stamped their souls.
Our beloveds have changed our lives both with their living and their dying, and we are never quite the same for either.
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Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Photo of leaf drops near top of page by Fredrik Alpstedt, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alpstedt/
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You gave words to what is in my heart. Thanks.
Your words are beautiful in and of themselves. And yet they remind me of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poems 1998 VI http://holyhauntings.typepad.com/haunted_by_the_holy_ghost/2007/11/sabbaths-1998-v.html
Amy, so glad this spoke to that big heart of yours, and Karen, this was one Berry that had eluded me all these years and which I am so glad you brought to my attention here. It is haunting and beautiful, and I shall keep paying its gift forward!