Jewish Journal


November 16, 2010

Cheating Death


Since my father’s death four short months ago, I have been to five funerals and I have mourned countless young deaths. I think the number was up to 20 young deaths of people I knew within the last year. Of the funerals I have gone to in the last three months, two deaths were women and three deaths were men. Three out of the four lives lost were young people. Both the women died of cancer. The other three men, who were in their twenties, died in separate water sport accidents. 

Last year on my birthday, I went to visit my uncle, and before our visit was over, he died in front of me. What does it mean when you witness death on the day you were born? I had never observed human death before. There’s a reason I chose to become a writer and not a paramedic or a hospice nurse.

A little over a year ago, after visiting dear friends in New York, I learned their three year old daughter, whom had just licked lollipops with my own children just days before had been tragically killed by a bus.  Over and over I have faced my mortality the way a stealth blizzard creeps into the sky. Death has swarmed into unsuspecting families who were not expecting chaos and pain to jolt their lives beyond recognition.

What does this all mean? I struggle to see the point to this pain that I have been selected to experience. I have tried so hard to make sense of it, but it seems senseless. To see the point in it, but it seems pointless. Is this G-d’s way of telling us he’s here and can strike us any minute? G-d I get it, you’re in the driver’s seat and we are powerless beings sitting shotgun. You don’t appreciate us being your backseat driver. But sometimes it would seem as though you need a little direction.

Do you get lonely and want one of us to keep you company? Are the elderly who have already lived full rich lives not interesting enough? You need young fresh blood to provide you with entertainment? I guess you don’t mind disrupting our lives, because you figure that you’ve given us enough vices to keep us company while we sort out our own disappointments in you on this earth.  By the time we figure them out, do we die anyways and eventually get the answers once we’re in Heaven?

Are we to learn fear? G-d I’m afraid. I’m afraid you always get the last laugh. I’m afraid that I have lost my innocent child inside me that always believed life was made up of sparkly cookies and Disney rides. I’m not afraid you don’t exist, I am afraid that you do.

Are we to learn pain? What is the lesson in learning pain? Is this what you feel when one of us forget to have our daily conversations with you? Is this what you feel when you give one of us life and our soul no longer hangs out upstairs? Do you feel lonely and in pain when another one of us are born to live in this world far away from His Majesty?
Is life only here to teach us that the point to all of existence is to learn how to coexist with pain and merriment?

In the last decade, the world has taken witness to terrorist attacks on 9/11 and Mumbai, Genocide in Darfur, Hurricane Katrina and the Tsunami in Indonesia. We have all seen loss and we have all been exposed to pain, but why is it that we cannot make it make sense?

Maybe if we had a trailer that showed us what goes on, on the other side it wouldn’t be so painful. It’s the mystery that’s a killer. Maybe if I knew what the other side looked like, it would be less painful.  Can’t I get a cable channel giving me access to the other world? Then I wouldn’t miss my loved ones as much. I could move on, let it go, live without pain while I watched Pepsi commercials featuring Heaven’s latest cola after I get to watch “Non-Survivor” where everyone I love ends up.

And why are we born with the notion that we will last forever and when we lose a loved one we become disillusioned? We all know nothing lasts forever, and yet we are still so rocked with shock and awe. I am not mad at G-d for creating death, I am mad at G-d for creating my belief in immortality.

The fact that my ego rejects “gone forever” unnerves me. Why does it need to hold onto forever? Why can’t it unravel the mystery of impermanence? I would like my ego to take a hiatus from believing in happily ever after. It is really disrupting my groove. This disillusion is what creates grief.  It talks us into taking Xanax and sleeping pills.  It allows a grieving mother to have a vacant look in her eye as she grapples with her ability to witness creation and destruction simultaneously in her lifetime.

Then again, it also forces us to search for meaning. It drives us to seek purpose. It is G-d’s little sneaky way of getting us up in the morning to find an AA meeting, write a song, lend a hand to someone else who fights his or her own demons. It can be the one formula to create internal change and enlightenment.

But why this model? G-d couldn’t you have substituted death with something else? Couldn’t we learn those things without all the drama? G-d why the drama? From here, it looks like you’ve become the Director of the ultimate reality show called “The Biggest Loser”. In this case, those of us who get chosen to participate actually gain weight. Have you ever seen the amount of food served in a Shiva house? Even Christian mourners follow their funerals with a house full of high calorie snacks.

This month I sat with a woman who had buried her fifth child. The air inside their home was stale with grief as it tried to make sense of mortality yet again. She had to bear witness to death so many times, and it still made no sense to her.  She was not inspired by her loss, nor was she grateful to G-d for choosing her to be human’s role model of smiling her pain away. I will spend much time searching for this answer, but I do realize, I will not ever get it, not until my time comes to go onto the other side will I finally learn the answers.

I wonder if heaven has a blog.

I could really use some answers. 

Years ago a sister of mine fought for her life in an illness that the doctors was sure would take her life by the time she was two.  I remember having these same questions while sitting in the hospital day after day waiting for a miracle.  Our faith had been tested each day as we failed to get good news that her health had improved. The very important lesson I learned during these years was that we are G-d’s children, and we are allowed, no we are entitled to kick and scream at G-d if he hurts our children. One afternoon I remember my mother locking herself in her bedroom and screaming on the top of her lungs “Leave my children alone!!”  I will never forget that moment, a) because it was sort of funny, and b) because it taught me a lesson that I can have a conversation with G-d that looks like this one.

We are not supposed to just take it. We are not supposed to turn our back on G-d when we are angry. We are supposed to fight back- because fighting promotes dialogue and dialogue promotes connection, and eventually that pain becomes a vehicle for true joy.  Just ask anyone who’s ever listened to Eric Clapton’s “Tears of Heaven”.  The joy in his voice over the memory of his son sings to the highest gates of Heaven, and yet. I am not at the joy part yet. I’m still yelling.  (Maybe not to the degree my mother did), but I am yelling.

Maybe my questions will eventually turn to joy.

I’ll let you know.

**I dedicate this essay to the many families who are mourning their loved ones this year. May you all be comforted amongst the Mourners of Zion, and may your sweet joy that you are able to muster despite your pain be the final sweetness that G-d decides to use for bringing the ultimate redemption.

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