For an audio version of this article, please go here.
A reflection on death to inform how we live in the present.
Part One — The Little Prince
There is a story written by Antoine de Saint Exupery called “The Little Prince” that greatly confronts the reality of every living being — that your time is limited and that you ought to consider, intentionally, how you spend it. Especially true in this regard is the people who will share that time with you.
At one point, the Little Prince interacts with a fox:
“For me, you are only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you have no need of me, either. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me and I’ll be the only fox in the world for you.
You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
At another point, the Little Prince is reflecting on his love, a rose:
“People where you live,” the little prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden...yet they don't find what they're looking for. And yet what they're looking for could be found in a single rose.”
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
Which is then contrasted with an image that greatly critiques our culture —
“Where are the people?” resumed the little prince at last. “It’s a little lonely in the desert…”
“It is lonely when you’re among people, too,” said the snake.”
The great truth we are invited to see is this:
In the end, all you will have is the relationship.
Part Two — Reflect the Relationships
It is no coincidence that after a tragedy or a funeral we have a keen awareness to hold those we love a little tighter. The emotional experience of loss often compels us to take seriously those we still have. But that centering force can easily be forgotten in the drive and desire of our every day lives.
We must decide, then, not to wait until we have nothing left to hold to be with those whom we desperately desire to hold once more.
May we be reminded, even compelled, to flourish the relationship while we still do have it.
May we learn from the stories of those who have traversed that difficult landscape and commit to not replicating the mistakes made through a lifetime, but to truly, in the end, hold tighter than ever what we have held so dear over the days, the hours, and the continuous moments that have defined two lives together. Our daily invitation is to reflect on such a monumental component of our humanity.
Have you lost someone you love?
A brother or sister.
Who are those that you wish you had one more moment with? Those who have left scars by their absence?
But consider, also, who you still have — who has yet to be lost to the inescapability of death.
A brother or sister.
I invite you to remember those moments of last contact. Though it may be difficult, there is a profound sense of hope, joy, and comfort by entering the space of loss. It was, again, what the little prince greatly pronounces — “It is a mysterious place, the land of tears.”
Possibly more imperative, however, I invite you to imagine the moments of last contact yet to come. That what you hold will, one day, be un-holdable. That you are not guaranteed what and who you love. That the nuance of life is the inevitability of death.
And in both your remembrance and your imagination, allow this narrative to infinitely shape yours.
Part Three — An Excerpt From “Broken Music: A Memoir”
[ the following is a direct excerpt from Sting’s “Broken Music: A Memoir” ]
I’m led into a room there with a single cot against the wall where a crucifix hangs. I haven’t seen him in a number of months and in the bed is a man I do not recognize. I imagine for a moment that they have put me in the wrong room, but the skeleton below me is my father, watching me with the bleak staring eyes of a starving child.
The kind nurse who brought me in quietly pulls up a chair. “Here’s your famous son come to see you, Ernie,” she says.
I try to compose myself; part of me wants to run out of that room like a frightened boy. “Hello, Dad.”
“I’m going to leave you two alone now. I’m sure you have a lot to talk about,” says the nurse. Then she leaves us.
I have no idea what to say, so I take his hand in mine and gently massage the soft triangle of flesh between his thumb and his first finger. I haven’t held his hand since I was small. They are big square hands, massively knuckled with strong muscular fingers, deeply lined and grooved.
My father’s hands are not the delicate, expressive hands of an artist, but they have a kind of elegance, and so close to death that they possess an honest and translucent beauty. They are the hands of a working man.
“Where did you come from, son?”
“I came in from America last night, Dad.”
He chuckles, “It’s a long way to come to see your dad like this.”
“You were feeling better a month ago.”
He shakes his head, “I haven’t been the same since your mother died.”
I remain silent, knowing how much that small confession has cost him. I reach for his other hand and begin to massage it, but he winces. I wonder how much pain he is in. Perhaps he needs another shot of morphine. He seems a hundred years old now.
I look from his eyes to the cross on the wall and then down at his two hands cradled in mine. It is then that I receive something like the jolt of an electric shock, because apart from the color, his hands and mine are identical.
The square width of the palms, the same carved scars in the folds of the skin, the big wide knuckles wrinkled like the knees of an elephant, and the musculature fanning out from the wrists to the thick and still powerful fingers. I stare at them for a long time, turning them over and over.
Why had I never noticed this before when it was so obvious?
“We have the same hands Dad, look.”
I am a child again, desperately trying to get his attention.
He looks down at the four square slabs of flesh and bone.
“Aye, son, but you used yours better than I used mine.”
There is absolute quiet in the room. There is something like a small bird fighting to get out of my throat and I can hardly breathe. My mind is racing, trying in vain to remember when he’d ever paid me such a compliment, when he’d ever acknowledged who I was, or what I did, or what I’d achieved, or what it had cost me. He had waited until now, when his words would be devastating.
His eyes are closed now as if the last few minutes have exhausted him. It is dark outside. I kiss him softly in the center of his forehead, and whisper that he is a good man, and that I love him.
Part Four — The Power of Presence
One day, you will stand over the body of another or another will stand over the body of yourself and there will be nothing left but what you have created in the moments of your shared story.
The gift of someone’s life, in all its forms, builds the world we find ourselves in. And when we come in contact with another being, their breath being finished simply leaves you with a piece of their gift now embedded in your flesh.
In the end, that is all you will have.
There is a chance, then, that in those last moments, there will be regret.
Regret of missed time.
Regret of missed opportunity.
Regret of focusing on the wrong things.
Because when you touch their skin for the last time, a misplaced priority, an annoyance, or the way they didn’t meet your expected preferences will be sublime to the power of their presence.
For those who have left us, our story with them does not need to end in a casket. Their gift can continue. You can still choose the relationship and honor their life with your continued breath. What you did have you still have and we can still cherish it, hold it tightly with all of our being to shape the future through what has gone before us.
But the hope might be that we can learn from those who have suffered the tragedy of a death bed gone unfulfilled — of a relationship gone astray with regret. That we will choose, now, the power of our presence.
That we will choose the relationship — because:
In the end…
…that is all we will have.