“People living deeply have no fear of death.” — Anaïs Nin
My father was a Christian man.
I spent many long, wet afternoons stretched like a cat on a warm rug staring straight up at an intimidating stone fireplace — like it was a holy place carved into a mountain to withstand time.
It was my sanctuary, a warm nest to listen to his stories. The wall of rocks, fitted tight like an artisan’s masterpiece, stood with reverence and a permanence that lent credence to the many wonders he told me about: birth, death, God, the cosmos, the war, endings and beginnings and how you know when you’re in one and not the other, resolve, devotion, passion, art, love… whatever he felt I was most in need of.
The pile of logs in the fire crackled and exploded in unexpected bursts whenever he spoke. His words were punctuated by star bursts of fiery sparks, framing his hulking silhouette and illuminating a great, gray beard. It was the beard of an academic, a struggling poet, a Norse god.
My father’s stone house, older than him (and yet like him), was built to withstand the trumpets of Gideon. It was his temple and it became my church.
On Sunday it always rained.
I would don my finery — because my father always insisted on smart attire — and present myself at his door, secure in the knowledge that he would teach me many great things. Sometimes they seemed like ordinary things — gratitude, influence, remembrance, forgiveness — but once grasped, they were made great by their implementation.
Dad sat on his “throne”, a chair of Brobdingnagian proportion, elevating his already towering figure far into the heavens. But he sat in a peculiar way, with one leg tucked under him as though it were lame and he was ashamed of it.
The power of the fire turned his silhouette into a ghost and he would speak, allowing the sweet melodies of brandy to play with his Scot’s brogue.
The informality of his “sermons” diminished my awe to an enlightened piety. Such a benign god would not choose to frighten his congregation.
As he spoke of Shakespeare (his favourite), Keats, and even the opium-addled Coleridge, he would let his fingers dance across the pages of what must have been his Bible, feeling the words he so longed to read.
His blindness was only in his eyes. He could “read” the verses long ago remembered with passion enough to make me weep.
The poetry held parables nestled in singing rhyme: stories of life and love to serve a man throughout the battles he must fight and the loves he must surely conquer or surrender to.
Lying on the rug, I saw in the soot-stained panes of the window the stained glass of some magnificent cathedral, catching the sound of the rain and holding it for a quiet moment.
Just below where an imaginary medieval tapestry hung, the dark wooden ledge of the fireplace was a shrine for the holy stuff, a mixture of relics, dust and wax. Sacred objects, no more than rags and bone, enslaved my curiosity.
I was fascinated by a small, gold chalice containing a few drops of a thick, red liquid, which my father said I must never put to my lips.
Though giddy with curiosity and prone to doing the opposite of what I was told, I never did.
His lessons were full of buoyant life. Whenever he spoke of captive time and the everlasting — as with Keats’ sacred urn or Shakespeare’s “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes…” — my father would stop and gaze into the fire. His eyes could suddenly see the way the flames made each log scream in imagined agony. Collapsing to his knees, the smile would vanish from his lips. I knew that he was afraid, very afraid, of the eternal fire that patiently waited for him.
“Any man’s death diminishes me,” he once intoned, quoting Donne, “because I am involved in mankind.”
It made me sad enough to cry, but I didn’t. Instead, I considered how the recent death of a friend had wounded me like a splinter, one that I could not remove. The more I fussed to pull at it, the deeper it settled in my skin and the more irritated the flesh around it grew.
At the best of times, we deal with death badly. Instead of celebrating a person’s life, we mourn its conclusion or — more often than not — stare at our shoes and mumble, never facing grief’s ugly stare head on. We are too afraid to say or do the wrong thing and thereby offend those around us who are also bathed in pain.
We need to learn to accept fate, deal with it, and acknowledge that it waits for us all, like a faithful dog at the front door. Death wags its tail, turns its head upwards with rheumy eyes and an expression of complete understanding, and waits, patient as Job. There’s no rush to jump the queue to eternity.
And with that measure of composure exercised in countless waiting rooms, a better grasp of the impact death wields on life and living is achieved.
Death has meaning.
It can be viewed in a contextual way that makes some sense of all we strive for in life. Without it, life is shallow, superficial, and performed with a script written by some hack.
The turn-of-the-century feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman asked why there was such a fuss about death.
“Use your imagination,” she wrote, “try to visualize a world without death! Death is the essential condition of life, not an evil.”
My father liked to refer to death as “the great equalizer,” an accounting, a reckoning, and a beginning as much as an end. He told me not to fear death itself, for it was bound to come calling. Instead, he suggested, fear what you may not have done in life.
I hope I have felt that fear and that my life is fuller for it. I know his was.
“Little heat” Giulio Menna @ Flickr.com. Creative commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Mural from Holy Grail Church in Britany based on stories of the Holy Grail.” Artist Unknown.