Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Sword of Damocles

In discussing Sandy's death with friends and the effect its suddenness and finality has on how we view our own lives, I was reminded of the story of The Sword of Damocles, which I read in elementary school. I met my friend Roxy today for my belated, but delicious birthday lunch at Blue Sage. She never knew Sandy personally, but we were discussing the fact that a random, shocking tragedy such as this wakes people up to their vulnerability to sudden death and also, to the possibility of the sudden death of loved ones. She literally used the phrase, "our lives hang by a thread." I asked her if she was familiar with the classic story, and she was not. Although the story really deals with the fact that you can never really judge another person's life without experiencing all the pitfalls along with the pleasures, it also highlights the fact that only a thread can stand between you and sudden death.

One of the things we have in common, and a major reason why we were able to resume our friendship after 30 years, is that we both try to live every day with the full knowledge that that sword hangs over us. What that does for us is to help us keep our values straight. It gives us a sense of appreciation for every little joyful moment or occasion that occurs each day. It helps keep us from getting petty about the annoyances that would mean nothing if we knew that the next few moments would be our last. It means that we can never take the continuing presence of our loved ones for granted. It means that we suffer terribly when someone leaves us after harsh words and we don't have the opportunity to rectify the situation. When I left Ari's home at the end of Passover and I kissed and hugged him, I told him I didn't know when I would see him again because we had no plans for the immediate future. He said, "of course we'll see each other soon." My parting words were, "You never really know." It was about five minutes later that I received the call about Sandy.

I think it is an art to accept the thread and the sword and still be able to enjoy life. I think that most people would just prefer to forget it hangs over them. Saul and the kids never think about death unless the idea is thrust upon them. They have told me many times that I am morbid for trying to live my life this way, but they accept that this is the way I am and they remind me when I am going overboard. I try not to go overboard.

I learned that I would die one day when I was six years old. I overheard a conversation between two of my uncles discussing my grandmother, who was in the hospital dying of cancer. Uncle Jack was accusing Uncle Sy of being callous about his mother's imminent death. Uncle Sy said simply, "we all have to go sometime." That played around in my head and exploded about 3 o'clock in the morning. I went to my parent's bedroom, woke up my mother, and demanded to know if that meant me, too. To her credit, she told me the truth and tried to comfort me as best she could when I fell apart. No one else I know has ever told me that they had this kind of dramatic moment when the realization of their own mortality suddenly hit home. Since that first morning after, life has never been quite the same.

I would still argue that we are meant to take the fragility of life to heart, that the knowledge of our own mortality is what sets us apart as human beings. In fact, I see the story of Adam and Eve as a metaphor for our knowledge of mortality. Eating the forbidden fruit imparted knowledge of our own mortality. The loss of the garden represents our loss of the blissfully innocent state of childhood when we thought we were immortal. Leaving the garden allowed us to reach a higher, more adult plane of consciousness giving us a better appreciation of the reality and beauty of our universe. During Yom Kippur, the community recites a litany that probably includes every means of dying known to ancient man. It is a particularly painful prayer if you really take to heart the fact that any of these ends could be yours and may come sooner rather than later. If God really does decide if I will be sealed in the Book of Life for yet another year, I hope that when my name doesn't appear, there exists a really good reason why not.


sabasenders said...

Your pearls of wisdom are wonderfuly worded. BUT, you dwell too much on death. I choose to see the beautiful flowers that we planted in the boxes around the arbor. The gorgeous day we spent together. I do spend a few minutes each day thinking it may not last. But I choose to dwell on the pleasures and enjoyments each day affords us. I too realize that death is certain. But feel when it does come let it be a surprize rather than worry about it. Remember love conquers all. Therefore, I love you as you are.

Marilyn said...

I think that is the sweetest compliment ever! I love you, too!