I put off writing this post because I was heartbroken earlier this month to learn of the death of my young cousin, Corey, who was only eighteen. I am stricken by imagining the grief his mother must feel. This sad news came on the heels of learning of the early death of another cousin’s husband, though I did not know him. But both of these were deaths that occurred far too early.
Corey, I did know. I stayed in his hospital room on his first night on this planet. I watched him grow up the first five years of his life before I moved from New York, and then afterwards I only saw him a few times, not nearly enough. His life had gotten tougher for him after the passing of his father when he was only nine. What can one say to a mother who has lost, first, her husband, and then, her child? What can one say to another mother who has lost her husband and the father of her child? I’ve been thinking about this for the last few weeks.
The first thing that we usually say in these situations is “I am sorry for your loss.” In most cases, the loss belongs to the person who is left behind. But in the case of an abbreviated life, there is also the loss of the potential of what that life might have held in the years to come. This makes it all the more painful and difficult to comprehend. This loss is the world’s loss.
What makes life meaningful? For most of us it is what we choose to love. That can be a person or persons, it can be what we admire, what we love to do, what we see as a calling, or an idea. If we lose that – if a painter loses their sight; a musician, their hearing; a lover, their beloved – then what? Or what if one can’t really identify some thing they feel passionately about – what is life then?
I suspect the answer we come up with will have a lot to do with our beliefs are about what this given life is. For me, I can only say I’ve come to believe not in a life or one physical life, but in lives or life experienced in limitless ways. Though I experience this life as a me, I believe that really life is experienced as a we. We are connected and every life matters and contributes to the overall shared experience in its own way, whether that way is obvious or not. In other words, life has no boundaries, not in a you versus me, bully versus victim, species versus other species. I believe that an individual life as we know it, no matter how brief or small, touches others’ lives in ways seen and unseen, matters immensely, and has a permanent significance.
I’m reminded of the poem, Ozymandias by Shelley.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Although the poem makes evident the irony of Ozymandias’s past belief that he was an important fellow and shows that now nothing remains of his worldly empire, the very existence of the poem betrays a very real and paradoxical influence by this past personage – not one he intended, but one that has reached through the ages to touch and make every reader of the poem reflect upon the temporal nature of life.
But is life really temporal? Yes and no. I don’t believe life is finite or ends at death. I like to think, that I – the spirit I – have been sent here on a mission, with a set of factors and tools (my personality, emotions, physicality, intelligence) to make the most of what I can in this time, in this world, with the challenges, gifts and handicaps that I’ve been given, and also I’m to collect my experiences like data to be collectively shared. You can think me crazy but consider Shakespeare’s lines, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.” (As You Like It) and see that I am not alone.
We, living in this world in the here and now, cannot feel the reality of an eternal life. The loss of a loved one is the loss of the life as we knew it. Yet that loss is really continual. I am no longer the child I was, not to my self or my mother. I may contain bits of that child, but I am some one else. Our spirits after death will contain our experiences here but they will not be limited by those experiences.
It is finally Spring, and I had been excited by its emergence – new life I saw in animals being born, the beauty of plant life renewing itself in blooms. Yet death is also part of that life cycle. Last week I went to the coast and saw sea lions cavorting in a sea that was ethereally beautiful. The very next day I read in the paper how sea lion pups are dying by record numbers off the California Coast. I had read this last year, too, but so far this year there are already 1450 stranded starving pups, 1100 in the month of February, alone. Last year, about 50% of stranded pups survived after rescue attempts. The others died. These animals’ deaths reflect the negative impact we’re having on the environment. The extent we’re able to help them will reflect our humanity. We are all connected.
Corey, losing his father so young, struggled in ways that most haven’t experienced and can’t know about, but each of us will struggle in our own way. Corey had an affinity for animals and had started to work with others to rescue birds. He was loved deeply by his mother, and he touched and taught each of us whose paths he crossed in ways that we might never understand in this lifetime.
Death is the not the final part of life, it is only the part that transcends the part we know. It is our loss, but only a loss of this world.
Note: Funds are being raised in Corey’s memory for the Wild Bird Fund. I hope this widget will work but here is the link as well: The Corey Soong Fund.