A friend told me about an old woman who was the most joyful person she knew, though the woman had suffered grievous losses in her life. I couldn’t fathom how the woman could be so joyful, and yet now I can. . . . almost. Perhaps the woman knows that everything comes to an end. Perhaps she knows that the little things are important. Perhaps she has found herself in all of the losses.
Or, like me, perhaps she has an awareness of death, of knowing, deep down, that her life will end, maybe even badly. Since I’ve become steeped in the grief culture, I’ve heard stories of terrible deaths, either doctors keeping people alive past any usefulness or alertness, or the person’s own will keeping them alive long after they wanted to be done with it. I’ve heard stories of so much pain and suffering that it’s amazing any of us ever manage to smile let alone be joyful in such a world.
We all know we are going to die, but after the death of someone we are profoundly connected with, we KNOW deep within our psyches. People tell me not to dwell on death, and I don’t. It’s more that the knowledge of death now is a part of the very fabric of my being and can never again be unknowable. This knowledge makes life on Earth seem both more and less significant, which adds a strange flavor to my days. I don’t know how this knowledge will affect me long term, but there is freedom in knowing that things will end.
I heard a song today by Mose Allison. “I don’t worry about a thing because I know nothing is going to be all right.” It sounds cynical, but it isn’t necessarily negative unless you give up and stop trying to do whatever you can. Does it matter what success you had here on earth when you are dead? Does it matter how many toys you had when you died? Of course not. It only matters that you lived.
It’s like writing — all stories are the stories of someone’s life, and as such, end in death. What we as writers do is end the book at an upbeat point for a happy ending and an ironic place for a more tragic ending, but still, life continues on past those significant moments.
I know how my life is going to end — the same way all of our lives are going to end. It will end in death. I’ve always been a bit of a worrier, but with death on the horizon (the far horizon, considering my longevity genetics) worry seems a bit foolish. All that counts is today — not future successes or failures, not future acquisitions or losses. Just today.
There is peace in that, maybe even joy.
June 7, 2012 at 10:37 pm
The Japanese feel that a story is not complete without the death of the hero or main character. This flies in the fast of what we in the west want and indeed expect out of our fiction and so it caused some problems for the Japanese and the distributors of things Japanese back in the 1960s.
The final episode of the 1960s Astroboy was never telecast in Australia and I believe it was never telecast in the USA. In more recent years I have managed to get to see this episode. A machine set to plummet the world into another ice age must be destroyed and the only way of doing it in time is to call upon the game little boy robot. Yes, in order to save the world Astroboy had to fly with the machine in tow into the sun. Yes, a suicide mission for the brave little robot and not something you could show as part of a kids show on either American or Australian television yet, for the time, it was a typical way of closing down the Astroboy show.
Another example would be Shintaro the Samurai. The last episode of this live action production tried to cater for both east and west. Shintaro sails off from Japan with his number one enemy and we know he will never return because to return would plunge the country into endless war. To the east Shintaro will obviously meet his death. To the west it might be assumed that Shintaro will live on in some other part of the world.
When it comes to my own writing I have never been satisfied with the notion that death need be the end of a story and, if it is the end of one story, it then can be the beginning of another. In my new novel Desk Job I kill off a Japanese woman in the first chapter but that is definitely not the end of her in the book or, hopefully, in the hearts of those reading the book. I guess my approach to endings is more western than eastern. This may come from being of British stock. It may also come from being an Australian.
June 8, 2012 at 1:23 pm
Rod, I’m always honored when you grace my blog with your comments. What a fascinating comparison of story concepts between the two ideologies!
In the western quest story, the hero dies, sometimes for real, sometimes metaphorically. It is the hero’s return with the elixir of life that brings the story to a conclusion. In my WIP, which is sort of a reverse quest story, it is the birth of a child rather then a death that precipates his own rebirth.
June 8, 2012 at 7:00 am
I am no longer afraid of death because I know it is going to be all right. John has gone on ahead of me. I will be with him and we will be happy in eternity. Since John’s death, I have read everything I can get my hands on re the afterlife and I know it’s a good place. It has helped me put this world in perspective and not sweat the small stuff.
And death itself is now a matter of perspective as well.
I used the following at the dedication of John’s Garden on his one year anniversary. I changed the sex. The original was in the female.
“I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads his white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. He is an object of beauty and strength, and I stand and watch until at last he hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other. Then, someone at my side says, “There he goes!”
Gone where? Gone from my sight — that is all. He is just as large in mast and hull and spar as he was when he left my side and just as able to bear his load of living freight to the place of destination. His diminished size is in me, not him. And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There he goes!” there are other eyes watching him coming and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here he comes!”
So what we perceive as an end is really a beginning. And everything before is but preparation.
June 8, 2012 at 1:16 pm
He never believed in life after death — he thought this was all there is, but after he died, I found a quote he had saved: Life is rather a state of embryo — a preparation for life. A man is not completely born until he has passed through death. I wish I could believe as you do. So much of my grief is for him, for what he suffered, for his life cut short. But perhaps I should grieve only for me?