What death may mean

Oftentimes during life or at the end of life, there is a need to believe. The alternative — the void, the emptiness — become too much. Too many loved ones have died. The shotgun awaits. You resist it. You cry out for help.

At the end of life, there is nothing or there is something. You may not want it for yourself. Although that would be okay too. You want it for the people you have loved and lost.

So many people with great intellects have made the choice to believe in something or to believe in nothing.

The British writer John Cowper Powys, who wrote one of the great masterpieces in English literature, ‘Wolf Solent,’ said this about death:

”Whatever death may mean, and none of us really know, I have come to the conclusion for myself that when I die it is the complete and absolute end of me. I am now satisfied that when I lie dying I shall be feeling a perfect contentment in the sure and certain knowledge that no consciousness of mine will continue after my last breath.”

Graham Greene, the author of ‘The Third Man’ and ‘The Power and the Glory’ and many other excellent novels, converted to Catholicism in 1926 when he was 22.

“The Church possessed for me a certain gloomy power,” he said, “because it represented the inconceivable and the incredible.”

‘Brideshead Revisited’ author Evelyn Waugh, said this of his conversion to Catholicism in 1930 at the age of 27: “I believe that everyone has the moment in life when he is open to Divine Grace. It seems to me that the essential issue is between Christianity and Chaos.”

Muriel Spark, who wrote ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,’ became a Roman Catholic in 1954 when she was 36. She explained it simply: “I became aware of a definite something beyond myself.”

Another convert to Christianity was one of my favorite writers, C.S. Lewis, whose brutally honest memoir ‘A Grief Observed’ about the death of his wife got me through many bad nights after my wife died.

Lewis, who was an atheist as a teenager and became a Christian in 1931 at the age of 33, explained, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but by it I see everything else.”

On the other hand, the famous author W. Somerset Maugham who wrote ‘Of Human Bondage,’ had this to say on the subject: “The belief of God is not a matter of common sense, or logic, but of feeling, It is as impossible to prove the existence of God as it is to disprove it. I do not believe in God. It is incredible to me that there should be an after-life. I am convinced that when I die, I shall cease entirely to live. I shall return to the earth I came from.”

So we come full circle, from disbelief to belief to disbelief. For myself, every day and every night, I seek the possibly impossible in a haze of marijuana smoke and the comforting warmth of bourbon.

I pray the 80-proof prayer to believe. To avoid the void. I live in hope that the murmur of faith will become a clear, strong heartbeat.

As the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in the year 170 AD: “The universe is either a chaos of atoms or a Divine Providence.”

Non-believers say an after-life is preposterous and flies in the face of all science and logic, and is therefore impossible. I have said the same thing.

I have also said that the universe, the geometric precision of it all, the fantastic magic of it all, is impossible.

Yet there it is, all around us, two trillion galaxies of impossibility.

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A miracle happened last night

An epiphany in the making

I had been snowed in for two days.

When the Nor’easter began to ease up Thursday afternoon I went outside and waded through a foot-and-a-half of snow to the snow-covered car in the driveway. I cleared about half the snow from the doors and windshield, got in and tried to rev my way out of the driveway. Not a chance.

I don’t have a snow shovel and at my advanced age I’m too old to shovel anyway. I got chest pains from just clearing half the snow off the car.

There was enough food and booze in the house for another day so I went back inside. Thursday night was another of my insomniac nights, but this time with chest pains. I got through the night but Friday was no letup of an irregular heartbeat and dizziness.

I refrained from calling the doctor because I didn’t want to take the chance of this being serious and him having me admitted to hospital. Hospital at my age during the covid surge is not a good idea for me or the front line workers.

I made no further attempt to get the car out of the driveway. I didn’t call anybody for help, I’m not sure why. I just said to hell with it and stayed inside the rest of the day, struggling with rapid heartbeat and more dizziness, which at this point I figured was more likely an anxiety attack than a serious heart problem.

Normally at this stage of the game I’d take a Xanax and that would calm me right down, but I was all out of Xanax. I drank booze instead — not so beneficial.

The night was a lonely and anxious one. I started reading a new book I had had delivered called ‘Miracles,’ an examination of the supernatural by the Christian writer C.S. Lewis. 

I am not a religious person. I started reading C.S. Lewis after the death of my wife two years ago. His book ‘A Grief Observed,’ about the death of his own wife and his anger and disillusionment with God, helped me cope with my own loss more than anything or anybody else could have. It may have stopped me from killing myself.

So there I was late last night beginning to read his ‘Miracles,’ all the while trying to ignore my chest pains.

Not being a ‘believer’ but also not being an agnostic, I put the book down and actually sort of prayed, in my own way. I addressed the prayer to my wife.

“I don’t know where you are, honey, I suspect you’re in oblivion, in other words, you’re nowhere, but in the spirit of this book about miracles and on the miraculous chance that you can hear me, I need a miracle right now to get rid of my chest pains and dizziness and anxiety because at this rate I’m never going to get out of this snowbound house.” Words to that effect.

I went back to reading the book. About fifteen minutes later, at 11 p.m., I heard the revving and scraping of a snowplow in the driveway. I looked out the window and — by god! — some guy was clearing the snow, making a path for my car to get out. It didn’t take him long. And then he drove off into the night.

Just knowing I was no longer trapped by snow and will be able to drive back out to civilization in the morning made me feel immediately better.

There I was, laughing with joy and telling the cat, “By, God, Bella! Susan, God, whoever, just sent us a miracle!”

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‘A Grief Observed’ — and Shared

In memoriam and with personal gratitude to the Christian author C.S. Lewis.

C.S. Lewis died on November 22, 1963. My gratitude is for his book ‘A Grief Observed,’ an angry and doubting series of notebooks which he wrote after the death of his wife and in which he questioned his own belief in God.

He even went as far as referring to God as a “Cosmic Sadist.” He was playing devil’s advocate; his Christian faith remained intact.

“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”

American wife, love of his life

Lewis married late in life, in 1956 when he was 58. His wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, was an American writer whose conversion from atheism to Christianity had been influenced by reading Lewis’s books.

Six months after they were married she was diagnosed with advanced cancer.

They thought their prayers had been answered when the cancer went into remission. But their “miracle” was short-lived and the cancer returned. She died in 1960 at the age of 45.

In memoriam C.S. Lewis
Joy Davidman

Using the pen name N.W. Clerk, Lewis wrote ‘A Grief Observed’ in 1961.

“Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?”

That, to me, is the toughest part of losing a soulmate. I know I will never meet anyone else like my wife — not that I seek that or even want to — and I also I know I will never “find her face, her voice, her touch.”

‘Mad midnight endearments’

I still wrestle with that reality, going on two years since she died. People shake their heads and some scoff but that’s my true feeling and I’m stuck with it.

Lewis echoed my own cries when he wrote about his dead wife. “I cry out for her, with mad, midnight endearments and entreaties spoken into the empty air.”

That one C.S. Lewis book — he wrote more than 30 — in which he questions the existence of God, ultimately coming full circle back to Christianity, has helped me cope with my own wife’s death more than anything else.

So I thank him, much belatedly, for that and I honor his memory.

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