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Location: Midwest, United States

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Clinging to Life

We cling to life with wildly variable tenacity. It’s part of the mystery of the human experience. I see it during my visits to the nursing home. Some hang on to life with a madness and a fervor that I simply cannot comprehend. Some merely close their eyes and let go...

My mother clings to life (I’ll probably write more about that later).

* * *

You can count the days I spent with my grandfather on the fingers of two hands, with a leftover finger or two. Those were precious days, filled with serious talk. He mentioned something that keeps bouncing around inside my skull. He said that he and his fellow Siberian gulag inmates could identify who among the newly arriving prisoners would die quickly. He said that he and his mates were always right. Some were obviously sick and weak. Within the group of the relatively healthy, there was an ineffable something that served as a clue to the individual’s will to live. Intriguing thought, no? Those well versed in suffering and death apparently develop a sense of an individual soul’s will to live.

I do not cling to life. I wonder if my grandfather saw that in me? He never said. I know that I’m not one to cling to life because I’ve been tested...twice.

* * *

Years ago, there was a tragic collision of commuter trains in Chicago. The carnage was truly gruesome. I rode those trains to and from work. A year or so after that tragedy, I was riding on an early morning train. It was a frigid winter day. I was seated in the lead car. Suddenly, the conductor burst from the engineer’s cabin, screaming, WE’VE LOST OUR BRAKES. WE’RE GOING TO CRASH!!He bolted from the cabin. Several commuters burst from their seats and followed him. Others began to scream, sob and wail. The clacking of train wheels added to the cacophony.

I looked outside the window. The winter landscape was gray and barren. I closed my eyes wasn’t in words so much as in emotions...I said good-bye. In my heart I said good-bye to family and friends and the beautiful world. I sat silently waiting, hearing only the clacking of wheels...I was at peace.

Well, we crashed, but it was a relatively minor jolt. Our train had slowed enough, and the train ahead had sped up enough, to minimize the damage. As I walked away from the train, I knew that I was not one to cling to life.

* * *

I was riding my motorcycle on an open road. There was an intersection ahead. A large sedan in the on-coming lane had rolled to a stop as if waiting for me to pass. I was cruising at 45 mph and I had the right of way. As I neared the intersection, the sedan rolled slowly forward across my path. I could not avoid the collision. Time slowed down. I did everything that decades of riding had taught me to do. Apply the brakes firmly...avoid locking the wheels...lay the bike down...give in to the impact...

I was calm. I figured this was gonna be really, really bad. Once again, I felt myself letting go...(after, admittedly, first thinking: ”Ooops!”).

I survived.

* * *

I can’t say if it’s useful to know the degree with which we each cling to life. Our life force is what it is neither good nor simply is what it is.

I’m comfortable with my lack of tenacity. My amorphous personal theology is such that I find life and death intertwined throughout Creation. It is all of one piece. There is no beginning or end. There is no Heaven or Hell (except those we’ve created in our own hearts). There is only Creation itself...and it is beautiful and it is good.

I hold onto life as I would hold a young bird...gently, within cupped hands. Life amazes and inspires. It is precious. The beauty of it all is mine to enjoy until the hands grow weak and the fingers become frail. When it is time to let go, I will simply let go. Life will continue...the majesty of all Creation will forever remain unblemished. I was, and will forever be, part of the Whole...and it is all good.

* * *


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