Dying with Innocence

Closed Eyes 2, by Odilon Redon
Closed Eyes 2, by Odilon Redon

How does one move into the acceptance of death, when hope has been the sustaining force of life? The question is upon me at this moment after hearing the news that someone close to my heart, in years and shared existence, has been told that her cancer is incurable and nothing more can be done. This woman, otherwise young and vital through every phase of her life, is a particular creature along with her husband. What they share in common is an unusual and rarified innocence and optimism in all aspects of their being. Both in their mid fifties, they have maintained a child-like wonder, walking through their days in acceptance and trust that all will be as it should and that everything is essentially good.

Through the decades of our relationship, I have been perplexed and astonished at their ability to meet the rigors of the mundane without falling into any semblance of despair. Their on-going joke has been, “ if someone’s got to do it, better you than me,” and thus they have carried on in what seemed to me to be a protective halo of exemption from the harshness of the world. Rollo May, would have us trust that the keys to freedom and possibility lie in the surrender to destiny. So how will my friends who seemingly have no psychic reality to show them the way or convince them of the rightness of accepting such a destiny, find a foothold in their journey forward.

As I ponder this dilemma, I am reminded of the luminous story, Death of a Traveling Salesman by Eudora Welty. We are introduced to a man named Bowman, a complacent, easy-going salesman who becomes stricken with a fever while driving down the road. Always in control, and a stranger to his emotional self, he becomes disoriented and literally loses his way. Because it is the nature of illness to bring one closer to him or herself, resistance for Bowman becomes his imperative. “He does not like illness, he distrusted it, as he distrusted the road without signposts.” When his car careens over a hill, he is forced to seek refuge in the home of strangers who serve to guide him back to himself, as he is completing the circle of life. Unable to combat the exhaustion of illness, Bowman finally makes a startling turn: “ this time when his heart leapt, something- his soul- seemed to leap like a little colt invited out of a pen…” . In his last days, Bowman comes into communion with his sensitivity and makes a connection with all creation.

As my friend begins to prepare herself for the unthinkable, I ask myself how I can help. Do I speak to her about the potential in pain; that through acceptance in loss and suffering she will find a richness of soul never imagined?  Do I ask her to accept the hand of destiny; do I whisper to her, “Amor Fati, Love your Fate”, which is in fact your life” (Nietzche)?  In the days and months to come, I will try in the small ways I can and I will read to her of Bowman and others, who were able to find a state of beauty reserved only for those on the precipice of death. Or will she walk into her dying shrouded in innocence, finding all that she needs wearing her rose colored glasses. Is it my limitation, in my existential bias that cannot yet imagine such a posture being authentic and whole?

Perhaps I will never know, but one thing is certain; in my living I know I will feel the separation of our worlds, for as Rilke once stated, we who have not arrived “ know nothing of this going away, that shares nothing with us”.

— Bonnie Fitz-Gibbon

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