The Last Word

I was finishing up with some piano students when I received the news of the death of a friend’s husband. He was 48 years old, with two young daughters, and appears to have died in a freak accident at home. Suddenly all the thoughts of the day – to-do lists, student concerns, home renovations, what to make for dinner – were swept away by the surge to which everything else always yields: the news of death.

We post-modern humanoids have a bizarre relationship with Death. It sits there in the corner of our mind’s living room, not saying much. (Thanks to Don Everts’ book The Dirty Beggar Living in my Head for this idea.) We all know it’s there, although we wish it weren’t. Some of the brightest and wealthiest among us have devoted much time and money to try to show Death the door, but deep down we know that it’s not going to happen. Carbon-based life cannot live forever. Death, that quiet intruder sitting in the corner, will always strong-arm its way in, regardless of how much money we have, how smart we are, how well we live, or how many essential oils we consume.

We all know this. Humanity has known this since the beginning. It’s just that now we have become experts at diversion. We are awesome at distracting ourselves from facing the only real certainty in our lives (the one not even the relativist can bend): the absolute fact that our heart will stop beating and we will return to the dust from which we were made.

We begin with actual words, preferring the term “passing” over that other ugly word. Since few people ever come back (and we don’t really know what to do with those who claim to have done so), we create narratives about it, hoping these ideas will present some form of protection when we are forced to face death. Even staunch materialists are willing to step outside of their stated belief that matter is all that exists, and embrace the idea that somehow the spirit lives on in the universe. It’s just too horrible to think that the person we love is gone forever; it makes it a bit easier to believe that their spirit lives on somewhere (over the rainbow).

It’s really not that far off from the archaic belief once held by uneducated people (who allegedly believed anything they were told to believe) that death is only the beginning of a new life lived on in another dimension. Even today, in a time when the educated masses allegedly never believe what they’re told to believe, few people are able to believe their child simply ceases to exist when it is taken too early by cancer. When Death stands up in the living room of our minds and asserts itself, none of those other shrill voices are prepared to truly argue with absolute certainty that there is nothing beyond that door. In times of raw emotion we all wish that the redemptive narrative were true, that we can tell our children that heaven is real and that they can rest in the certainty of seeing their loved one again.

I’ve read enough to hear the clinical voice of Academia calmly explain that these narratives are coping strategies that we create. The accounts of people having experienced Glory (or that terrifying other place)are merely chemical reactions in the dying brain to make dying easier (which isn’t so true for those who claim to have been to that terrifying other place). Even if this were true, I’m not sure why time+chance+matter would care about the dying process, and should have evolved to make it easier for us, lumps of matter that we are. What is more, I’m really not sure why the speculation of these lab-coat types should carry any more weight than anybody else’s opinion, because it’s pretty hard to design an experiment to test the hypothesis. Like I said, not too many test subjects would return from the other side. I’d rather believe my saintly grandmother who, after having returned from her first death, asked her weeping and praying children why they hadn’t just left her there. It was so much better than here.

In the end, we’re all going on faith when it comes to the question of what happens after death. It’s the biggest wager for every human being on earth.

We have a child with a genetically inherited disease that severely limits his vision. Not only has he been severely myopic since birth (his vision was 20/200 even as a baby), he also has a malformation of the cells across both retinas, and another condition where his eyes shake, further reducing his visual acuity. There is no treatment for his condition, and glasses can only correct the myopia. He is fortunate, because he can see enough to function independently, but he has to work harder at everything, and some things are just impossible for him to see.

Caleb is now 7 years old. He has never known clear vision. He lives in a fog all the time. The only way he can see his score when we’re bowling is for us to take a picture of it and enlarge it for him on the screen. He cannot recognize me across the playground unless he remembers which colours I was wearing that morning. He has trouble finding his friends at recess unless they come up to him and ask him to play. Because of one of his conditions, he has to tilt his head to one side severely to focus on anything, so he has to do daily neck exercises to make sure that his neck develops normally. He trips and falls easily, and cannot see a ball that’s been thrown to him until the last minute. He also cannot see the stars at night.

Caleb loves to talk about heaven. He usually ends up crying, because he is so overcome with what he imagines heaven will be like. He asks me questions about it all the time, and claims to have seen the sky part just a bit to reveal a slice of it to him (it was the moon peeking through some clouds). He doesn’t want to die, but his ardent wish is to go to heaven, preferably sooner rather than later. One night when he was telling me about this he said, “I can’t wait to go to heaven, because then I can see the stars”.

And then it hit me that for Caleb, heaven holds the promise of completeness that most of us feel we can somehow achieve here on earth. In his childlike mind, he’s picturing an all-expenses-paid elevator ride up through the cosmos, holding Jesus’ hand, and being able to reach out and touch one of those suckers. What his mama knows is that he has no hope of ever seeing the stars for himself until he is given new and perfect eyes, which I have faith will happen when he winds up in that place where every tear will be wiped away, every wrong will be made right, and as Frodo Baggins says, everything bad will come untrue. This is not a coping strategy – this is where I have placed my wager for eternity.

Perhaps this is why Death has been ordained to stay in the living room of our minds. It reminds us to place our bet, because we don’t have the choice whether to enter a wager or not. Everything that matters is on the line. Death reminds us in no uncertain terms that we are but dust, that the completeness we hope for will never be found on this side, so we might as well stop working so hard for it. Perhaps C.S. Lewis said it best: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

Where have you placed your wager?


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