Memento Mori

By Cordelia Fitzgerald (Rated G)

Death is such a freeing thing, isn’t it? Not in the sense that probably most people would take that rhetorical question, but in a rather convoluted and ultimately simple sense. Death is the only thing that can put the proper perspective on life, like how C.S. Lewis tells us that time is only the lens through which we see eternity.

Today, many people seek to avoid the thought of death. A recent chance comment from a young neighbor of mine startled me perhaps more than it ought to – when referring to the pet history of their house, this little seven-ish-year-old told me quite flippantly that their old dog had “passed away.” I was shocked. Perhaps I’m used to childhood that is as baldly blunt as it is inquisitive, but to hear this euphemism from such young lips seemed out of place. It is simply an example of the avoidance of death that I am increasingly discovering in the culture. We must not say “the dog died” lest the child truly understand in her own astonishingly perceptive way that the dog is gone for good; instead we must substitute a nebulous term to “soften the blow.” (This is not to say that there is no place for this – I am simply referring to my astonishment to find this in one so young – and about a dog.)

Why is this an issue? Why not avoid such an uncomfortable subject? Again, we come to death as a necessary perspective to put on life.

Let us examine, for a moment, a character from a book that is arguably L.M. Montgomery’s most surprising. (Spoiler alert for The Blue Castle:) In the first part of the book, Valancy Stirling spends her birthday in the most wretched way imaginable as everyone imposes on her. She wilts under the disdain, orders, and tasks heaped upon her, with not even Cinderella’s friendly animals or cheerful spirit to keep her company. We learn of the complete tediousness and misery of her life as she drags to each morning through long sleepless nights. And then we watch her discover that she has a fatal heart defect, and “Valancy Stirling, who had never lived, was about to die.” She echoes the sentiments of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30: “with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste”* (Please treat yourself and look up Kenneth Branagh reading this on YouTube) and reflects on the wasteland of opportunity that her life had been. This is pretty depressing stuff, hardly reconcilable with Montgomery’s blithe Anne with an E.

We follow her thoughts as they start to turn and ramble along the line detailed in Chesterton’s “A Ballade of Suicide”:

To-morrow is the time I get my pay–
I see a little cloud all pink and grey–
Perhaps the rector’s mother will not call–
I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall
That mushrooms could be cooked another way–
I never read the works of Juvenal–
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

Chesterton is also tasting the nearness of death, but is reconsidering, because the world isn’t so bad, after all. And it won’t last forever, so why miss out on what is here now?

Put another way, by John Dryden,

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

Dryden has lived and Valancy has not – but she has the opportunity to amend this.

Today I came home from work and opened a window. The air was comfortably warm and welcomingly humid after work’s carefully climate-controlled dry chill. The lilacs directly outside were releasing an extremely delicate fragrance that drifted in with the breeze – not overpowering or strong or glaring, but serene and gentle and soft. The dragging spring of snowy May and frigid, cold, grey rain was gone, and I took a moment in the sweet peaceful quiet to simply enjoy the experience.

To my shame, I don’t often take a moment to “smell the roses.” Even the cliché is, by definition, so overused that its poignancy is lost. Everything is routine, dull, monotonous, and so worn into everyday life that though we live day to day, we don’t live. We don’t live as Dryden, Chesterton, and Valancy (later in the book) do. Life is a rollicking adventure, for the simple reason that it is not death. And what if death comes? Whether something terrifying or wonderful beyond all imagining waits doesn’t matter; only the perspective that this unpredictable parting brings matters for the purposes of these people.

Montgomery writes in another book, “I believe the nicest and sweetest days are not those on which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string.” We need to learn to appreciate these moments the way we appreciate pearls – for what are they, after all, but cast off clam irritants? Yet they grace the wrists and ears of the highest royalty.

What matters it if every day passes absent an earth-shattering experience? Is not life itself enough? Boredom, in my humble opinion, does not exist in the vocabulary of God – He who gave the dewdrops their twinkle and ants their pinched waists. Why should His creation be of less interest to us, particularly when we have that perspective that death’s nearness provides? Living each day to the fullest and rejoicing in the little things will bring us, as it did Valancy, to the end of the book, where “life was no longer empty and futile, and death could cheat her of nothing.”

Reading List:
Chesterton, G.K.: A Ballade of Suicide
Dryden, John: Happy the Man
Montgomery, L.M.: Anne of Avonlea
Montgomery, L.M.: The Blue Castle
Shakespeare, William: Sonnet XXX

*When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
    But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
    All losses are restored and sorrows end.

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