“You know, I’ve seen some of the wisest people emerge in the last ten or fifteen years in the hospice movement, perhaps you’re familiar with it, these beautiful people who accompany people in their last weeks and months before they die. And they are some of the most universally human, caring, compassionate people I meet. I was with them in the death of my own mother and father. And they were such great human beings. They didn’t talk doctrine or dogma — you never even knew what denomination or religion they belonged to — but you just felt this flow coming out of them. What struck me as I talked to them was that I think most generations who’ve ever lived on this Earth have accompanied the previous generations in their deathwatch, over weeks, months… and I think that changes everybody. If it’s someone you’re really bonded to, your mother, father, your sister, your wife, your child, you’ve got to be bonded to the person first, but to watch someone pass over that you’re bonded with is the ultimate religious experience. I think most people in human history have had easy access to that.” — Richard Rohr
The Romans saw the will of human beings as so circumscribed by circumstance — and most particularly, by the encompassing fact of death — that the phrase si quid humanitus accidat — “if something human should happen” — indicates a death. I had intended to put up more installments on our Classic Parenting blog this summer, but aliquid humanitus accidit. For those of us who begin late — I was thirty-nine when our first child was born — our children arrive just as our parents begin to grow old and sicken. This summer, my mother was diagnosed with terminal, inoperable liver cancer. She lived in a traditional way: she spent her entire life near where she was born, never learned to drive, gave birth to me and my sister at home, and never sold her house or moved. And she wanted to die traditionally as well: at home, surrounded by people she knew and loved. We asked her to consider home hospice care, but she refused it until the very end. Caring for the dying was the kind of thing family and a few select friends did.
In her last week, she could not manage stairs well, so we set up a bed for her in the living room of her large 1870s house. There was a natural location for it, at the front of the house, by the bay window; it was the same place she had moved her bed for my sister’s birth. All the room’s entrances were through double doors. A bed — or a casket — could easily be maneuvered in and out of the room. As I sat by my mother’s bed, reading Latin prayers late into the night, I thought: this is how this room was designed to work. This is how our ancestors died.
Our children were, for the most part, able to understand only that things were bad. The twins are two and a half, and our youngest is just a year. None had any memory of their grandmother before her illness, and asked no questions; but as the end approached, we told them that “Oma was sick” and that I had to go to her house to take care of her. In the week before and after her death I was not home often. The children were affected by our stress and grief, particularly our son. He began stuttering terribly, especially on certain words: “Daddy” and his own name being two of the least pronounceable. Though he had been toilet trained, he began wetting his pants, especially if he was ever corrected. Now that the funeral has been completed — less than a week ago — I made the point of spending the entire week with the children. I got very little writing done (and hence made little money — the perils of freelancing) — but little John’s stammering stopped. We got to celebrate our little one’s first birthday. And a bit of normalcy has reappeared.
But we have never intended to pretend nothing happened. Cicero said tota philosophorum vita est commentatio mortis, the entire life of philosophers is a calling to mind of death. My mother herself used to make fun of people who did not give death its due: when one of our neighbors used the phrase “if I die,” Mom talked about it for years afterward. “‘If I die,’” she repeated. “What kind of fool says ‘if I die’? It’s a question of when.” Poussin has a haunting painting of a group of shepherds clustered inquisitively around a tomb. Poussin entitled the work Et in Arcadia Ego— death is present even in Arcadia. There is no escape from it anywhere. We told our children (as per grief counselors’ advice) directly that their grandmother had died. And my mother wanted direct cremation — no open casket at the wake. But I made an arrangement for them to see her body at the funeral home.
I wasn’t sure about this step. Karl Ove Knausgard spends the first four pages of his My Struggle talking about how our entire society conceals not so much death — there are lots of people getting killed in tv shows and movies — as dead bodies. We cover corpses. We move them and get them out of sight as soon as possible. I had never thought about it before, and it was a worthy and interesting passage (the best part of the book, except perhaps for his discussion of the general chaos that is parenting).
But anyway, my mother wasn’t like that. She always believed in an honesty about death. And I wanted them to know something — even if they didn’t remember, perhaps the experience would be in them somehow — about the end of our lives.
We pulled up to the funeral home on Lefferts Boulevard the afternoon after her death. There was some odd twittering in the oak trees up above — some monk parrots, as it turned out, who had escaped being shipped to pet stores and had taken up residence in Queens. I went in quickly to see how the body had been prepared — on a hospital stretcher, sheet over the body, head and shoulders visible, heavy with the unfathomable stillness of the dead — and determined the kids would be fine with it. I’ve heard people decrying “the Platonic body/soul dichotomy,” but I’m a Platonist, as was my Mom (she boasted about it, and ascribed problems in her relationship with my father to the fact that he was an Aristotelian), and as I walked them towards the funeral home I found some rather Platonic, ancient words bubbling up to describe what they would be seeing.
“When we die our spirit separates from our body,” I told them. I had seen this when my father died too — that amazing sense of life vanishing in a moment, and leaving the room. “Our spirit returns to God, who made it. And our body returns to the Earth. You’re going to see Oma’s body before we return it to the Earth. Her spirit has already gone.”
It was a brief viewing — a minute, perhaps two. We said a prayer. I explained what they were seeing. We left. We noticed no adverse effects afterwards: in fact, it was clear John at least had learned something. He started talking to me about returning a dead worm to the Earth later that week, and we moved it off the sidewalk onto the grass. And then he saw a dying flower in one of the bouquets and again mentioned that it was returning to the Earth: and we put it in the compost so it could do that. He was thinking about it all. We haven’t noticed an obvious effect on his twin sister Mary, or on little Eva.
The Franciscan Richard Rohr has spoken about how he believes that modern people are different from all other generations because we have generally excluded death — from our homes, from our sights, from our conversations and thoughts. He concluded that if he had the whole world’s attention for just one moment, he would ask it to “draw closer to death.” Part of a more traditional life is a more intimate acquaintance with death. But this doesn’t necessarily make it easy. St. Augustine was part of that traditional, older world, and he believed death was a sign of something gone horridly wrong in God’s universe. My mother said that she wondered about the faith of religious people — she mocked John Paul II for this — who seemed to want to endure any kind of medical treatment rather than get a chance to go to a supposed heaven of bliss. But no matter how religious you are, it doesn’t seem possible to do anything but grieve when the people you love die. This is part of a paradox, and perhaps reveals a deeper truth: there’s no pleasure, per se, in this drawing closer to death. It is real grief, and it can overwhelm you if you give it a chance to enter your life — via an old picture, an old house, or by trying to write about it — but perhaps it needs to be there all the same, an inescapable part of the examined life.
Vera philosophia, says the old wisdom, est meditatio mortis. Meditating on death is real philosophy. The kids have gotten their first lesson. And over the coming weeks and months and years, my wife and I will have our mastery of the subject tested. Our initial experience is rather Ciceronian: no amount of philosophical preparation takes away the emotional difficulty. Ataraxia, the philosophical ideal of dispassion, is achievable for humans dummodo nil humanitus accidat. As long as nothing too human happens.
[This is the second installment of our Classic Parenting column. For the first installment, “A Latin Home,” see here.]
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If You Can Swing It, an Italian Vacation Can Be the Cure for the New-Parent Blues
John Byron Kuhner is the president of the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies (SALVI) and the editor of In Medias Res.