Aaron Burr sings a line prophetically in the musical Hamilton: “Death doesn’t discriminate/between the sinners and the saints/it takes and takes and takes/and we keep living anyway…”
Of course this is true. We imagine a skeletal Death cloaked and clutching his scythe, harvesting us or, worse, those we love. Death takes desires, possibilities and memories we haven’t created yet. It takes those we love and leaves behind a black hole that pulls even survivors into their own special darkness.
I kept bumping into Death this week. I’ve thought of a friend, dying at 94, who left a profoundly powerful life of love and music. I’ve also thought of two young women leaving life way too soon. I encountered one young woman, Julie Yip-Williams, through her memoir, The Unwinding of the Miracle. Written as she is dying of colorectal cancer, the book loops, knots, stretches and eventually stitches a coat with her own life-thread. It is a meditation on preparing to die.
I met the second young woman in fiction, and only through the people she left behind: her husband, two small children and the drunk driver who killed her.
I’ve been thinking about the holes Death punctures into the blankets we wrap ourselves in. Yip-Williams during her dying laid neat stitches around Death’s looming hole like a buttonhole-maker, so that, when the blade came at last to slash open the buttonhole, the fissure went only so far and not a centimeter farther.
Her account of diagnosis, treatment and preparation for death weaves threads of horror, rage and resistance together with threads from her past, where she survived infanticide, blinding cataracts and low expectations to choose an improbably powerful life. In dying, she is able eventually to live intensely and fully in the present, to grieve with her children about her impending death, and to savor the richness of loving and sharing fearlessly — an abundance of connection emphatically created by a scarcity of time.
My copy of her book bristles with tabs to mark passages that I want to guide me as I die and — more importantly — as I live. Yip-Williams works her threads so that the hole created by her death is no more (and no less) than a well-crafted buttonhole that won’t unravel into a garment-destroying tear. I imagine that her husband, daughters and many others still grieve deeply for her. And I’m intrigued that she’s sewn her living self into their healing.
The fictional death told the story of a deep rending: a mother’s shocking accident en route from learning that her cancer was in full remission. The garment here, stretched by the cancer but holding, was suddenly pulled apart, leaving in her family’s life gashes and tears larger than holes. And then the scissors slashing wildly through the family turned on its wielder, not to kill but to torment: thwarting his purpose, relationships and living itself.
The rent garment and the scissors eventually meet. Each character fingers the unraveling, which inches inexorably on and on. The son in particular pulls the threads in relentless understandable anger. And he nurtures a heart-clench of unforgiving.
I get it. The clench of unforgiving might be the only thing that holds the heart together and stanches the wounds that threaten to bleed us to death.
The story, though, suggests that the heart-clench of unforgiving also eventually slows the blood flow not just to the wound but to the functioning body parts too, so that the mother’s memory is never ever separated from her tragic death.
In the story, forgiveness — of self and other — ensues, as we knew it would. The heart-clench is released, the blood begins to pulse productively again and, to return shamelessly to my original metaphor, the needle moves the thread in stitches that repair and even enlarge.
Yip-Williams forgives the cancer and sews a garment far smaller than her husband, young daughters and family ever wanted to wear. But it is beautiful. The mother’s son eventually forgives the drunk driver and helps the driver remove the plates of guilt sewn into his pockets. The pockets still sag where the plates had been, but they function as they should. And the son is gradually able to wrap his arms around the mom he’d known for 99% of his life because the sleeves sewn shut are restored to purpose.
So, yeah, Death takes. I won’t say it gives. A hole is left where none existed before.
But these accounts help me think about ways to use my needle — before and after the dying — so that the life garment remains one that I or my loved ones can still wear after Death’s scissors slash through it.
I wrote this piece for Five Minute Friday, a faith-based community blogging site at https://fiveminutefriday.com/2019/07/04/fmf-writing-prompt-link-up-take/ Scroll all the way down and check out the other short essays on the topic of “Take.”