On September 28 I'm delivering a sermon at our evening service on Death. Death is, of course, a huge subject and I've had a lot of time to think about it. As a result I have a mental list of short meditations which eventually may come together, if the congregation is lucky, into a coherent message. I thought that instead of asking everyone to get their heads around it all at once, I would put it out in bite sized chunks for people to chew over as the month progresses.
Death is one of the few universal experiences of humanity. If you live long enough (and it doesn't have to be that long) sooner or later someone close to you will die - a grandparent, a parent, a sibling, a child, a close friend. It happens to us all.
About a decade ago I lost both my parents within a year of each other. My Dad died of heart failure in 2004 after a slow decline. Less than a year later, in early 2005, my Mum died of a brain tumour. Mum's death was a shock - in January she was a healthy, energetic 70 year old who seemed like she could live for another 20 years. By the end of February she was gone.
In the months after she died I often passed the Princess Alexandra Hospital, where she died, and out of the corner of my eye I would see her walking through the hospital grounds. My heart would skip a beat and I would turn for a closer look, only to realise that of course it wasn't her at all, it was some other person who didn't even look like her. Consciously I knew that she was dead, but my subconscious was not yet ready to accept that fact.
It's a long time since I've had that experience but I still find myself thinking of her and Dad. Last year my daughter got married, and this year my son and daughter-in-law had our first grandchild. Both times I could imagine my mum running around doing something practical - serving food at the wedding, making meals for the new parents or cleaning their house. I imagined teasing Dad about being a great grandfather and him giving me some caustic response. I wished I could have heard what they thought. I missed them.
This weekend Lois and I saw a play called The Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire. It portrays the grief of a couple, Becca and Howie, who have recently lost their infant son in a car accident. In one scene, Becca is cleaning out the son's room with her mother Nat, who has lost a son of her own ten years previously. Nat reminds Becca of a funny incident in the young son's life, then they fall silent.
Becca: Mom...(Nat looks up at her)...Does it go away?
Becca: This feeling. Does it ever go away?
Nat: No I don't think it does. Not for me it hasn't. And that's going on eleven years..... It changes, though.
Nat: I don't know. The weight of it, I guess. At some point it becomes bearable. It turns into something you can crawl out from under and carry around. Like a brick in your pocket. And you forget it every once in a while, but then you reach in for whatever reason and there it is. "Oh, right. That." Which can be awful. But not all the time. Sometimes it's kinda...not that you like it exactly, but it's what you have instead of your son, so you don't wanna let go of it either. And it doesn't go away, which is...
I felt the tears in my eyes because this is exactly how I feel. I still miss my parents, and I expect I always will. No-one else can fill the gap they have left in my life. Yet that very absence has become as much a part of my life as the presence of others I love, an every day reality which I live with because I have no other option. This is part of what it means to be human.