One year ago, almost to the day, I wrote a post about death. Three-hundred and sixty-six days later, and I find my thoughts are back there again. This time, I’m happy to report it’s under considerably less traumatic circumstances.
My wife and I are new to living in a house, you see. Our entire adult lives have been lived inside of apartments in which pesky things like leaks, the lawn, and I don’t know, dead possums are dealt with by other people. The transition into renting a house has been made difficult by the fact that we do not own the tools one needs to be entirely self-sufficient because we never had to. One such tool is a lawn mower. Some friends lent us one, but I’ve not been able to get it to turn over yet. As such, our lawn has taken advantage of the warm, humid, rainy days and has lost its mind.
I am not speaking hyperbolically when I say that my yard scares me because I have no clue what might be living in it. Snakes, bears, hobos, Sasquatch… They could all be in there somewhere. We have weeds that are literally as big and lush as bushes. We are singlehandedly dropping the property value of every house on our street.
And so it was, that when I stepped out of our house yesterday, I was immediately assaulted with a terrible aroma. It was trash day, so I assumed I was just downwind to our garbage. I stepped off our porch and into the dense foliage to make my way to my car. It was then I made a grisly discovery: An inconsiderate possum had the audacity walk into our yard, cozy up to our porch, and promptly die there. Well… “promptly” may not be accurate. It seems it had been there for a while, but our yard had hidden it until finally time got the better of its body and decided to launch its foul stench out into the world.
I’ll spare you the gory details of how it got dealt with. (It involved a t-shirt tied around my face, an air freshener, a shovel, and perhaps most disturbingly, a hearty sprinkling of lye.)
I have a hard time with death, I think. In general. I didn’t grow up on a farm. I never really had pets. I’ve lived a charmed life in that I can count on a single hand the number of encounters I’ve had with dead things. While this is a blessing, it has left me utterly unprepared to deal with death on those rare occasions that I’m confronted with it. The word I used in the post I linked above, was “abhorrent”.
When I stood over that possum, every fiber in my being screamed to turn away. All I wanted to do was put as much distance between myself and this thing as quickly as possible. I was repelled by it almost on a cellular level. Like it’s very non-being could somehow infect and taint my soul.
When I was in high school, I had a friend who had hurt my feelings. I was upset with her; angry. We had gone a month or so without any interaction. I scowled every time I saw her. Driving home one day, she swerved to miss a deer in the middle of the road, lost control and drove her car into a telephone pole. She was rushed to the hospital, and she died during the night.
I found out the next morning at school. The weight of the reality of the situation closed in around my mind and left me broken. I wept throughout my first period class, silently. The night of the wake, I stood in line for the viewing. I thought I would be okay. I really thought that I could take it. The line was long, so it took some time for me to get to a point in which the coffin could be seen.
And there she was. But… It wasn’t her. It wasn’t her at all. It was the locust shells you find attached to trees in the summer; vacant and hollow. I tried to fight back the tears despite the growing lump in my throat. I got to about fifteen feet of her before I couldn’t take it anymore. The very same reaction I wrote about above; the cellular rejection, the primal knowledge that this was no longer my friend crashed into the fact that I could never fix what we were arguing about.
I stepped out of line and turned away. I began walking in the opposite direction. Without my permission, my feet began moving faster and faster. I remember the blurry line of black clothes and pale faces. I remember the face of the funeral home attendant who stood at the door. She began to move like she was going to open the door for me, but saw my tears, saw my face, saw my gait. She realized she just needed to get out of the way and nodded like she understood.
I burst through the door and ran down the sidewalk, past a group of mutual friends. I remember hearing them call after me, and I think I vaguely recall hearing their footsteps pounding on the sidewalk behind me. About half way down the block, I slowed down and collapsed to my knees; out of breath and sobbing. One of them crashed into me, wrapping his long arms around me as guttural sounds of grief poured out his mouth. Another friend stood stoically behind us and placed his warm hand on my shoulder.
The Bible talks a lot about dying to ourselves. It stops feeling like a quaint suggestion if you really imagine what true, literal death looks like. Jesus’ sacrifice feels a lot more costly if you imagine the disciples pounding their fists into the ground until their knuckles bleed and howling at the sky in anguish. Sixteen thousand children dying of starvation every day is a much more brutal statistic when you consider the smell.
We see death so often… on TV, in the movies… But that’s not death; it’s actors with their eyes closed. But as a culture, we’ve agreed to believe that’s what death must look like. Like a nap with red paint. Maybe it’s just humanity… Maybe it’s a defense mechanism so we can convince ourselves that we’re not constantly perched on the verge of eternity, but I wonder if maybe we’ve lost something important.
Maybe death is supposed to scare us so we remember to live.