Death has a way of making people philosophical. As my family and I stood in the hall of the funeral home for our mother’s wake, one of my brothers told me that nobody knows what death is like. And it was because nobody knew what it was like that everybody feared it.
Externally I kept my demeanor neutral and listened attentively. Internally I rolled my thought bubble eyes at his obvious statement. It wasn’t obvious because it was factually true that none of us standing in the room at the moment chatting and celebrating our mother’s life have much firsthand experience with death. It was obvious in its absurdness. There were billions of humans who have gone before us who have a lot of experience with death. We should learn to listen to them.
Everybody dies. It is the single fairest consequence of life. Some of us may life a little longer. Some of us may have it a little easier while we are here. But everybody dies. For every person with a beginning of birth there will be an end. Why fear what everybody goes through just because we don’t know what’s on the other side?
My family is deeply rooted in religion. Our mother was Presbyterian and dad was Pentecostal. That’s a helluva combination. If I can summarize, I learned that the people at mom’s church were a little more demure in their expression of faith that talked about heaven as a place you wanted to go by treating each other with respect while the people at dad’s church wore their religion on their sleeves and talked about fire and brimstone and the fact that without a good connection to god one will burn in hell for all eternity. But either way you had to do right by others in order to keep in god’s good grace and get that positive verdict at the pearly gates.
Regardless of the differences between the two faiths, my family has learned what it means to put our trust and faith in god. And so I reminded my brother that it’s not important that we know what’s on the other side as long as we have faith that there is another life after death. I reminded my brother that as humans our brains aren’t quite geared to understand death, so why do we bother to dwell on such hang ups? If we believe that there is another side and that we have done our best to be faithful and good stewards with our life, if we believe that Jesus is waiting there with open arms, what is there to fear? Maybe we just don’t believe as much as we think we do.
My brother and I were interrupted before our conversation could go much further. Somebody, a long lost relative or a close family friend that we lost track of years ago but somehow mom kept in touch with, wanted to break the ice by asking the well worn question of how we were holding up. That’s a loaded question to somebody who just lost their loved one. How the fuck you think we’re holding up is the reply that most often comes to mind. But instead of rubbing people’s nose in their thoughtlessness, we simply smiled and said fine and thanked the person for his or her effort to show something that could pass as consideration.
So many people showed up to say goodbye to mom. People I haven’t seen in years popped out of the woodwork you would’ve thought that mom won the lottery. My brother and I never did get back to our discussion. Chances are we never will.
Coming from a large family of ten children odds are pretty steep that we will never come together again as a family unless somebody else in the family dies. Family reunions have never gotten us together in the past. Thanksgiving Day and Christmas celebrations won’t pull all of us into a single physical place. Nothing will make us come together and face each other like death can. So when I looked around the room and saw the rest of my family I had to wonder which one of us will make the sacrifice that will pull the rest of us together. And in the end, there will be just one of us left alone.
Hopefully that morbid day will be a long time away. But the reality is that no matter how long away it is it will always come too fast. And when it does more than likely we will be woefully unprepared. We will cry over the fact that we need more time to hone our procrastination skills. My family, like many others I am sure, has a tendency to take life for granted and put some really important things off. Why do today the important stuff you can put off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow comes and the lack of preparation only amplifies the overwhelming feeling of loss.
And just like my brother I want to get philosophical over the obvious. A long time ago a wise man looked at my brother and I and said that the two of us are a lot alike. It was in a dream not long after I was initiated into the African spiritual tradition of Ifa. At the time I didn’t see what he meant by that. Standing in that hall with my mother’s lifeless body I could see it as clearly as I could see myself in the mirror.