Saturday, June 30, 2007

Treating Death

Tonight in line at the Lowes customer service counter, I noticed the woman in front of me holding a badly singed gift card. One edge was entirely melted and black. Before I could even begin to imagine how the gift card had gotten burned, I over heard the words "airplane," "crash," and "wallet."

I hope the woman and her friend forgive me for eavesdropping, but as they were right in front of me, and as one does not see a singed gift card every day, I leaned in a little to see if I couldn't get more of the story. All I could figure out from my vantage point was that she wanted to replace the card, which apparently still had some credit on it, so she wouldn't have to carry around the burnt one ( I wouldn't want to carry it around either).

I waited while the two women signed the necessary receipts , took their card, and walked away. Then I leaned in close to the clerk and said, "Did they just say something about an airplane crash?" The clerk explained that the woman's husband had been killed in an airplane crash several months ago, and that in his wallet was $100 in cash, and that gift card, all of which was burned, but not destroyed. That means that whoever responded to the crash site would have found the body of this woman's husband and would have looked for a wallet for identification, would have found the money and the gift card, and would have used the identification in the wallet to ultimately trace the man back to his unsuspecting wife. She would have had to identify the body, perhaps, and at least take any of the salvaged personal belongings recovered from the wreckage.

I have never had anyone even remotely close to me pass away. A few acquaintances in high school were killed in car accidents, or committed suicide, but no one in my life, no one that would cause true personal grief has ever died. I can't imagine what went through that woman's mind and heart when she received word that her husband had died, how awful the site of the singed money and that card must have been, how disgusted with it she must have been. Perhaps she could not look at it. Perhaps for months it sat in an unopened drawer, still smelling faintly of smoke and scorched leather, perhaps she could not bring herself to do anything with the wallet. To spend the money would be to admit his passing, to admit that it was okay to move on, that a part of her had not died in that plane crash, or that somehow that part was now replaced. To move on with life, would be to forget, and to forget would be to admit deaths superiority.

"Now, of all the benefits that virtue confers upon us, the contempt of death is one of the greatest, as the means that accommodates human life with a soft and easy tranquility, and gives us a pure and pleasant taste of living, without which all other pleasure would be extinct."--Montaigne

So the question that arises of course, is what changed? What happened in that woman's life (and I keep resisting the phrase "poor woman") that made it okay now to exchange the money at the bank and the card at Lowes. Perhaps nothing happened. Perhaps she found it in her drawer and had forgotten all about it. On the other hand, perhaps the exchange of that singed card meant more to her than I could ever begin to extract from a few moments of eavesdropping. Death has come to her, has taken from her, has burned scars into her mind. But maybe, just maybe death has finally moved on, perhaps the dark shadow of grief and longing no longer hang over her home and heart.

"The most extreme degree of courageously treating death, and the most natural, is to look upon it not only without astonishment but without care, continuing the wonted course of life even into it."--Montaigne

I have no way of knowing of course, and I don't claim any ability to understand, or even empathize with what that experience must have done to her, but the words of Montaigne are comforting to me, when I think of her husband, living life the way he wanted to, perhaps dying the way he wanted to. Certainly he did not wait for death to take him. He flew towards it, never blinking, only living.

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