Death Gives Life
Albert S Rossi, PhD
Perhaps you’ve had a near death experience? I did.
I was kayaking alone in the Allegheny River near Pittsburgh. The weather was balmy, the shy was clear and I was serene. Two parents were in a kayak and their two young children were is a kayak nearby. Since I saw parents willing to allow their children to be alone in a kayak I felt safe. I had a life vest and knew how to kayak. Yes, I knew the river was deep and the current was mildly swift, a perfect setting for a leisurely afternoon in the sun. Tragedy struck without warning. I saw an empty water bottle floating nearby. As an act of environmental cleanliness, I decided to row over and pick it up. Seemed like a commendable act. I got along side the bottle and reached over to pick it up. I was instantly capsized.
Stunned, bewildered and demoralized, I tried to think of what to do. There was no one in sight in any direction. I decided to hang onto the upside down kayak. Too slippery. The kayak was at a 45-degree angle in the water and slowly moving down stream faster than I was swimming. I looked into the water and saw my small waterproof bag slowly descending into parts unknown. I forgot I had a life vest on. All I knew was that I was in deep trouble. The clear thought crossed my mind, “This could be ‘it.’” I wasn’t afraid nor in a panic. However, I was at a loss about what to do. The kayak was moving away and I was swimming rapidly. I knew I couldn’t swim like that for more than fifteen minutes. I now wish I remembered that I was wearing a life jacket. I could have relaxed, even though I knew there was a dam a few miles downstream.
Unbeknownst to me, persons in a motorboat saw me, cut the engine so I didn’t hear it, and slowly pulled up behind me. Two young men were aboard, each covered from head to toe with tattoos and body piercings. They were angels in disguise, compassionate gentlemen who gave me directions on how to get into their boat. I was grateful beyond words, water logged and exhausted. All in a blink of an eye. The young men rescued the kayak and oars and took them with me to shore. I still pray for them.
What is the lesson in this for me? I am not sure I can articulate what I learned that day. Suffice it say that death really can strike when least expected and there is nothing to fear except fear itself.
“Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”
When writing this article, I began by asking “Why would any youth today want to read something about death and dying? Seems cruel, absurd or at least depressing.” Is the topic of death and dying really depressing? Depressing means life-draining. In the book, Tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie says, “The truth is, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” Is that really so? Yes, when we no longer fear death, then we can really live. And only then.
Death in our culture is hidden and denied. We whisk a dead body off to an undertaker who makes the dead body look better than it was when it was alive. We do all we can to not look death as a part of human life. This death-denying mentality has tragic consequences for everyday life.
I’ll be personal. My lovely wife died twenty-one years ago of metastasized bone cancer. Watching her deteriorate was a sacred, horrid experience. I say “sacred” because, then and now, I knew that much more was going on that met the eye. My wife knew it too. I say “horrid” because she was in pain.
I have a photo on my iPhone of my wife’s tombstone and the grass in front of the grave. The tombstone has two rectangles engraved on the front. One rectangle is hers, her name, birth date and death date. The other rectangle has my name, my birth date and a blank, awaiting a death date. Every so often I open that photo.
I use the marvels of iPhone to expand only the grass on my side of the gravesite. So, the screen has only grass, the grass on my side of the grave. I ponder that grass. I know that now I am looking down at that grass. The day is coming, more sooner than later, when I will be looking up at that grass. I will be under that grass. I must admit that I have grown to love that grass. You might ask, “Isn’t that morbid? Isn’t that macabre?” Isn’t that just plain old dumb?” My answer is emphatically, “No.” I answer no because I conclude, “Yes, that grass will cover me some day. BUT, I am not dead now so I will live this moment, this day vigorously.”
The point is that anything we fear becomes repressed energy that constricts life energy. If I fear death then that fear causes me to be less alive and energetic. If, however, I am willing to look death fearlessly in the face, then I am more energized to live fully.
The grave is mystical door leading to new life
St John Climacus says, “Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods, so the thought of death is he most essential of all works.”
When I am prepared to die, right now if that is God’s loving will for me, then I come to a sudden realization. I am not dead yet, which means I can live vigorously and robustly in the present moment, precisely because I am not dead now. I will be dead sometime. Yes. But since that time isn’t now I can choose to be vital and bold while I have the time to do so.
I will make a silly, yet bold, claim that I hope comes true. When I die the Lord will say to me, “Al, I gave you many seminarians to form every semester for decades. How did you do?” I hope to respond, “Lord, have mercy.” He will say, “Al, how did you do with the two children I gave you to raise into Christ?” I hope to say, “Lord, have mercy.” He will say, “Al, is that all you can say?” I hope to respond, “Lord, have mercy.” He will say, “Come on in.” I don’t know what will really happen when I die because I am a wimp, but I can hope.
Death and suffering were not created by God. Humans brought darkness, slavery, death into the world by disobedience. Adam and Eve did then and we do now. Death is a fact of life but we do not have to fear death. Christ overcame our death by His death.
The grave is mystical door leading to new life.
 Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie, (New York: Broadway Books, 2002).