Exactly one year ago, I received a phone call early in the morning. The caller was a friend of a friend telling me that he had bad news. He had never called me before, and yet I was not surprised nor did I panic. I simply listened. The news was that one of my closest friend’s brother had just died in a traffic accident. In the following two weeks, my grandfather and another friend had both passed away. Earlier in the year, my friend, Jorge, had died of a brain tumor. Nevertheless, 2005 was not a total loss of a year due to the deaths of loved ones. In May alone, four friends of mine brought healthy babies into this world. When I look back at 2005, I reflect upon what I experienced with these deaths and births.
I have seen life in life, I have seen life in death, and I have seen death in life . . .
While I once thought about love as the most powerful force in the universe, I now believe that it is life itself that rules the world. Life is like water that, no matter what obstacles you put before it, will find a path above, below, or around the barrier until it breaks through or dries up in the struggle to subsist. Everytime I see weeds breaking through concrete or cement, I think about the will to life.
When I say that I have seen “life in life”, I mean that I have seen that powerful force of life breaking its way into the world from the mother’s womb. I have seen the joy that the new life brings to new parents, their family members and friends. I have seen how people are united to celebrate the new life. I have seen how a new life that was previously inexistent comes into the world and becomes part of this world as if it had been the center of the universe for eternity. The parents, grandparents, siblings, relatives, and friends all gravitate to the newly born being like the Magi to the Christ child.
I have seen “life in death.” I have seen life swimming in death, both diving into and out of death, struggling to keep alive as well as floating on death surfaces in its most primitive forms. I have seen my dying grandfather fall back into a trance of childhood happiness. On the border of life and death without the strength to filter the subconscious, I saw a fully matured man regress to free flow speech that lost all of its notions of temporality. And in the ramblings and utterings, I do not that believe that I have ever seen such a sheer countenance of joy. I envied the innocence. I have also seen the battle to stay alive in the doom of the terminal illness of suicidal depression. I have seen the despair go to happiness back to despair, back to happiness again. As a matter of fact, without this life force, we would all expire immediately from the ailments of the mind and body.
Unfortunately, I have also seen “death in life”. I have seen a comatose 27 year old, frozen in life awaiting the last breaths of air in his lungs to extinguish. The death was breeding in his life, suppressing even the most subtle expressions of life. And I have seen despair fight the body with so much force that all of the will to live could not withstand. But, worst of all, I have seen what dying does to the living, to the surviving. The same ecstasy that family and friends rejoice in with a new birth parallels its insufferable counterpart in the death of a loved one. I have seen how the death of loved ones peel essential layers off of the life of the living. I have seen mothers faint, fathers lose faith, and friends hide. I have even seen how the overwhelming shock of the tragedy of death can destroy a person (known as survivor’s guilt). I have spoken for hours to crying mothers who want to know “why” or who think they will never survive. I have seen how some deaths are foretold while others are sudden and unexpected. I have seen the living one day in full life dress and the next they were no more. All are lamented.
But, with four deaths and four births, I have to admit that there is something so beautiful in what I experienced last year. No matter how I analyzed it all, I kept thinking of the same thing. Upon death, people celebrate the deceased’s life, even if they do so in mourning and that mourning is the sign of the importance that life plays in our lives. In the cinematic adaptation of “Shadowlands“, the terminally ill Debra Winger tells Anthony Hopkins that the “happiness today is part of the suffering tomorrow”. In other words, that what we suffer at one’s death correlates to the importance of that person to us in life. At Pipo’s funeral mass, for example, the church was so crowded that people had to stand in line outside. It took almost an hour for everyone to give the family their condolences. At my grandfather’s funeral, there was only a handful of attendants, for he had outlived his friends. While waiting for people to arrive at the funeral home, I went through a photo album that we had made for his 90th birthday, with pictures of his friends and family during his lifetime. While we could measure his life based on all of his professional achievements, his life summarized in a photo album had little to do with his professional resume or obituary. His true CV was the sum of all of those people who had populated his life. And the lives that enter and leave us, that life force is what makes it all worth living.
Every now and then, I think about that phone call from one year ago. I think that life is so fragile, that all it takes is a phone call. One phone call and you are either here with me living in life or here with me living in death. Or better yet, maybe it is a phone call like the one I had received last year on May 3rd telling me that you are now here, born amongst the living.
And just as I have witnessed how the death of a loved one (especially the death of one’s child) continues to haunt us in life, I have also seen how the deceased life continues to be present in ours. As Neruda wrote: “I seem to glimpse you in every window.”
Dedicated to Charles R. Bergmann, Jorge de la Vara, Joseph Blanes, and Juan “Pipo” Clar.