Dedicated to my good friend, Professor Louis de Saussure
Long ago we befriended each other, and our lives were both enriched. Thank you Louis.
My good friend emailed me today concerning the impending death of his dear mother. Faced with the choice of palliative care, or keeping his mother in her own home with the doctors and nurses close by, my friend choose to have her stay in his and his wife’s bed, while they sleep in their living room. Here is an excerpt of my response to his letter:
I am so sorry to hear about your mother. I wish there was something profound I could say, but at this moment words are inadequate. All that I can say is that you are an extraordinary son—caring for your mother in your home, in her final hours. I know that your mother appreciates this more than her own now feeble voice can convey.
Believe me when she looks at your face with her now aged one, she sees a small boy from more than forty years ago who, with her help, grew to be a wonderful man. She remembers holding you when you were an infant, your life totally dependent on her love and care; she remembers taking you to school for the first time; she remembers you learning to read and write, to ski and ride a bike. And she remembers you becoming independent of her, growing up, and marrying your beautiful wife Marina.
When she hears your voice she takes pride in knowing that you are a wonderful husband, father, and scholar. When she hears Marina’s voice, she is happy to know that you have a wonderful companion in life, without which life is so lonely. Even to the extent she cannot see and hear, her mind races with a thousand memories that form the narrative of a life well-lived. The flickering flame of a consciousness that will soon go out, but which has been lit deep within you. And when she sees and hears her most beautiful grandchildren, she finds comfort in knowing that life and love go on, and that her desire for a beautiful and just world will continue. She knows the flame of life has been transferred from her candle to yours, and from yours to your childrens. She knows that life will be hard, but that it is still worth it. She knows that her son and his family will still stand when she falls, and that the longings of her own heart are imbedded in theirs. In all this, hopefully she finds peace. And she does not fear death, for like Bertrand Russell see knows:
The best way to overcome [the fear of death] is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The [people] who, in old age, can see [their] life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things [they] care for will continue.
I don’t know if this is comforting to you or your mother. But I know there is some truth in Russell’s words, which were echoed, in a different form, in the most moving description of life and death that I have encountered in my intellectual journey—the words of the philosopher and historian Will Durant. I quote them in full with the hope they provide comfort, while at the same time remaining true to what we know of the human condition.
Here is an old person on the bed of death, harassed with helpless friends and wailing relatives. What a terrible sight it is – this thin frame with loosened and cracking flesh, this toothless mouth in a bloodless face, this tongue that cannot speak, these eyes that cannot see! To this pass youth has come, after all its hopes and trials; to this pass middle age, after all its torment and its toil. To this pass health and strength and joyous rivalry; this arm once struck great blows and fought for victory in virile games. To this pass knowledge, science, wisdom: for seventy years this person with pain and effort gathered knowledge; their brain became the storehouse of a varied experience, the center of a thousand subtleties of thought and deed; their heart through suffering learned gentleness as their mind learned understanding; seventy years they grew from an animal into a person capable of seeking truth and creating beauty. But death is upon them, poisoning them, choking them, congealing blood, gripping their heart, bursting their brain, rattling in their throat. Death wins
Outside on the green boughs birds twitter, and Chantecler sings his hymn to the sun. Light streams across the fields; buds open and stalks confidently lift their heads; the sap mounts in the trees. Here are children: what is it that makes them so joyous, running madly over the dew-wet grass, laughing, calling, pursuing, eluding, panting for breath, inexhaustible? What energy, what spirit and happiness! What do they care about death? They will learn and grow and love and struggle and create, and lift life up one little notch, perhaps, before they die. And when they pass they will cheat death with children, with parental care that will make their offspring finer than themselves. There in the garden’s twilight lovers pass, thinking themselves unseen; their quiet words mingle with the murmur of insects calling to their mates; the ancient hunger speaks through eager and through lowered eyes, and a noble madness courses through clasped hands and touching lips. Life wins.
With my very best wishes for your future health and happiness, and with love to all your family, I remain, as always,
Your friend John