“Fellow passengers to the grave and not a race of creatures bound on other journeys.” That one line from “A Christmas Carol” scares the Dickens out of most of us. (Though I prefer “travelers” to “passengers.”)
Starting the first Sunday in Advent and finishing on Christmas, read a stave from “A Christmas Carol” aloud. My Mom heard the first stave in our house a few days prior to transitioning to Lower Cape Fear Hospice, where her worldly travels ended in peace on December 7.
When I called one of her best friends with the news, he said, “I’m old enough to know better, but I guess I thought we would live forever.”
I’m old enough to know better too, but death is the only undeniable fact we share. Actually, death is a fact for each of us, but most of us, most of the time, will use any myth and means necessary to deny it: to live as if disease, aging and death are indignities that only happen to somebody else.
When I find myself buying into agelessness myths, I look in the mirror. I’ve had a touch of gray since I was 16, and went totally gray by 40. Mom bugged me to color it, but keeping it gray helps me remember the privilege of aging. A lot of us don’t think of aging as a privilege, but we’re still here doing it.
When I get too drunk on my own deathless versions of reality for the mirror to work, I have a cup of cappucino and remember the Capuchin monks. This band of brothers constructed a chapel of their own bones. On the floor they engraved, “What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be.”
That’s one sobering cup-a-Joe.
2014 has been sobering. It marked the 30th anniversary of the death of a former college teammate and one of my best friends. During 2014 I learned one of my best friends from high school died. Jim was a physics professor and one of the brightest folks I’ve ever known.
And Donna Green. For years Donna Green took my sons under her wing at the Community Arts Center and was a stalwart of many Wilmington communities.
Death even postponed this paper’s Christmas party, when one of its delivery men suddenly passed away after working for the company for 30 years.
A week after Mom passed, the curtain came down on talented, funny, local theater legend Lou Criscuolo.
Intelligence, artistry, talent, wealth, good looks, youth, humor. Doesn’t matter, fellow travelers.
The day before Mom died she and I listened to Sinatra. When she drifted under the medicine, I walked outside to get another CD and ran into her hospice volunteer in the parking lot. Claire has volunteered once a week since a family member died at hospice last year. Claire explained, “It’s beautiful. The people were so kind. I had to volunteer, to be part of that kindness.”
“People are pretty good to each other when we know there’s no way out, aren’t we?” I said without thinking, which is how much of what I say happens—especially when grieving.
Fortunately, Claire’s chuckle forgave my impropriety. She sighed, “That does seem to help us see the light, doesn’t it?”
Claire beeped open the locks to a Cadillac with a Grateful Dead “RU Kind?” bumper sticker. I’m not always grateful for the Dead’s music, but I love their bumper sticker question.
A red-eyed, soft-faced man caught me in the hall on my way back to Mom’s room. “There’s pizza in the kitchen. You need to eat something.”
“You been talking to Mom?” I asked and nodded toward my mother’s room.
We grinned together and he nodded toward another room.
On the way back to Mom’s room, with my slice, I didn’t pass a single liberal, conservative, Muslim, Christian, privileged member of the 1 percent, or ever-struggling member of the 9 percent in the hall. One-hundred percent of us at the hospice were in the same boat.
Mom declined her slice, but when my phone rang, she agreed to talk with her grandson. Mom smiled at the sound of her Manhattan grandson’s voice, and before drifting off again, said with an earthy kindness, “That’s so kind. I love you. I love you. I love you.”
What a beautiful gift. Most of her memories and all her opinions melted away, leaving only kindness and a smile. More than enough for the moment.
As 2014 closes, I’ll mourn through this season of change with my memories and opinions. And I’ll remember that moment and wonder is there any more worthy question to ask ourselves in any moment than, “RU KIND?”