“In the long run we are all dead”, John Maynard Keynes famously and dryly reminded us. The last few weeks here in the UK have been one long meditation on life and death, shared by much of the world.
Mountains of flowers have been offered as a tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth, piled up outside her homes and her gates and on the pavements of the nation. I heard something lovely about what was done with the Windsor flowers the other day.
Each evening the bunches were gathered up, the plastic removed (why on earth are people still wrapping their flowers in plastic in 2022?), and the flowers used to line the avenue – the “Long Walk” up to Windsor castle. It looked pure and heavenly. The flowers will afterwards be composted and used to nourish the queen’s flower beds. I am touched by this – bringing death and new life together, where they belong.
I went to visit my old friend Sylvia the other day, in the care home she has recently been moved to. She has crossed that Rubicon between being old, frail yet independent, into infirmity, needing assistance in almost every aspect of her life. It can be a bitter transition, finding oneself completely without agency, and Sylvia was having trouble adjusting. She was confused and disorientated. In the end I just held her small hand and she gently dozed off.
I thought of the uncomfortable words Jesus said to Peter (referring to how Peter was going to die a martyr’s death) and, as always, I found them strangely comforting. “I tell you, when you were young, you dressed yourself and walked where you wanted; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
So matter-of-fact! This concise and unsentimental description of what comes to many of us if we grow very old or very ill. It happens, it just does, and we do not need to be afraid of it. If it was good enough for Peter (and indeed for Jesus himself), we are reassured that there is no season in which we are beyond the covering of God.
As we are born, our body hits the air and we give an indignant cry of protest at the shock and awe of life outside the womb. At the point of death, our last breath is exhaled, so gently it is almost imperceptible. We begin our lives by breathing in our first breath, and we end our lives by breathing out our last. Perfect symmetry. Alleluia.
I remember my Auntie Janet’s funeral. The priest conducting the funeral knew her and had spent time with her in the months before her death. He shared with us how much care Janet had taken in preparing herself to die. Part of that work, he told us, was in coming to terms with unfulfilled longings. Something that had been the desire of Janet’s heart had been to set up a donkey sanctuary in the west of Ireland. A niche ambition, to be sure! yet deeply held. It was not to be, for any number of good reasons, and she found as she approached the end of her life that this was a source of true regret.
This wise priest helped my Auntie Janet to recognise that this longing was itself a precious part of her identity, a gift from God to be treasured and owned and celebrated, rather than just mourned and sorrowed over. I have never forgot this beautiful, liberating insight and sometimes find myself sharing it with people who are grieving over hopes and dreams which can never come to pass.
In the words of Dr Kathryn Mannix, “There are only two days with fewer than twenty-four hours in each, sitting like bookends astride our lives; one is celebrated every year, yet it is the other that makes us see living as precious.”