When I woke up this morning, you were on my mind. It’s been a long time. I left there long ago, I had to ramble and walk away my blues and move on, through old and new troubles and worries and wounds and pains. Now I’m home, here, far from that place in time. But when I woke up this morning, you were on my mind…
On the porch with coffee this morning the eternal mountain valley, the trees and mountain ridges and sky, are faded into a quiet sentinel background, mute and unseen. Word has come that a friend from long ago is dying, and will soon leave this life.
I am old now, and great chunks of memory rest deeply dormant in me, unrecalled for so long I think they are lost. Then a message arrives, a moment comes, a certain quality of air and light, a faint ephemeral wisp of breath in the mountain morning air. Memory stirs… and there it is, resurrected, slowly rising in salient bits and particular pieces, history filtered and sifted and reduced to essence. The essence remains, and rises again in memory.
The memories gather slowly, ancient shadows laboring up through the archeological layers of my life as I wait, wondering how much will surface now in memory, how much has left and is gone.
These are the days when death is more visible to me. The older we become, the more often these messages appear; someone we know, or once knew, is preparing to leave or has left this life. We pause, and remember. We consider the fact before us, the third and last fact of this life.
It has come round often in recent days. A ten year old nephew dies suddenly in his sleep; a friend, rejecting a third round of chemo and radiation chooses to live out the rest of her life rather than endure those agonies again; Robin Williams leaves this life. And not so far back, still feeling like it happened yesterday, my brother dies, my uncle dies; and then there is, so very far back in time, still clear and present as the day it happened, the time my father dies and his leaving informs me, for the first time in my life, of this third and final fact of life.
We come here; we live here; we leave here. Each day, all around us, the vast, dynamic, organic continuum of human life is filling with new arrivals, filled with lives living unique legends, and emptying with constant departures.
The poet observes there is a season and time and purpose for all things, and here it is, one of those moments. A friend, now far distant on the earth from that place shared so long ago, is leaving. We stand, solemn and silent, attending the moment with them, honoring the life lived.
It’s said that there is no new thing under the sun, and I believe that. I also believe one of those things which exists as an eternal, unchanging principle in creation is that the individual life of a human being is always a brand new thing, unique and particular, and it is the one thing each of us does better than anyone else ever has, or ever will. It is the one thing which is eternally new under the sun.
We live our life. It’s the rarest thing in the universe, this life we live. It’s a unique gem, exclusive, it can’t be duplicated and never will be. We live in creation, and we call it that because every life is a new creation, the first and last of its kind.
When those we know leave us we feel the loss of their presence in life, and the presence they hold in our particular lives no matter how transient or how long ago. We remember the connections shared, the part of their life which lent itself to our own as we each lived the discreet experience of our individual lives. And that feeling of loss leads us to a deeper contemplation of one thing which all lives share, that constant, ancient thing which has always been present under the sun; the time of leaving life.
The other day I came across a Latin phrase, damnatio memoriae, which translates as “cancelled in memory.” It refers to a historical practice of the Roman Empire. It involved the official condemnation, by the Roman Senate, of the memory of a Roman emperor . It describes the effect sought as all records, monuments, and every evidence of the very existence of the Emperor is utterly destroyed. It is the opposite of apotheosis, which means that a deceased emperor is believed to have ascended to heaven.
The phrase “cancelled in memory” caught my mind. It seemed to be the collective fate of everyone.
I thought first of all the ancient people who lived in what are now the ruins of history, the long forgotten everyday citizens living long forgotten everyday lives in Akkadia and Babylonia, Troy and Pompeii, living in the cliff caves of the Dead Sea, and the cliff dwellings in Mancos Canyon and Mesa Verde.
I though of my brother, dead now for only two years and yet, even so recently gone as that, nevertheless fading in memory. He is still held bright in the hearts of those who loved him. Yet soon they too will leave life, and their memories of him with them, and sooner or later, in a hundred years or perhaps more, a final article of his particular, unique life – maybe an old photograph hung upon a wall with no memory of the particulars and personality of his life – will be taken down, and put away, and lost. And he will become cancelled in memory, as will we all.
It is the same for all of us. And that is how it ought to be. We come here, we live here, we leave here. Our focus and purpose and essential reason for being is embodied in these three things. Acclaim, recognition, fame, achievement – nothing sought in our desire to not leave, to not die, but instead to remain in memory – can overcome this final basic fact of our existence.
We sometimes desire to be remembered as the ancient sage is remembered, or the divine messenger is remembered, or the paragon of thought or science or art is remembered. We desire that the exquisite value of our life, which we sense as being real and true and irreplaceable and unique, would be recognized and remembered. And so desiring, and so fearing the loss of such treasure, we feel the loss of ourselves and the loss of others, and mourn and grieve it when each of us leaves this life.
Yet we grieve for beauty, and grace, and the miraculous thing which each life is. We are put in touch with how precious, how rare, how exquisitely perfect the content of every life is, filled with joys and this deep grief and the countless shades of existence that occur across the infinite spectrum between darkness and light.
And then, after all these thoughts and many more, a simple answer floats lightly up through memory in a simple song from 1965, and I hear this, carrying me beyond my reveries and contemplative reflections:
“…When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad.”
And I raise my coffee cup to Barbara, and Scott, and Louis and me, and all the others there, and remember my favorite things about those people, places, and times we shared; and I savor the wonderful apotheosis that each and every one of our lives is.