Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"The Undertaking"

Everything is always speaking the truth, I suppose, but the fact of the matter is that I am not always willing or capable of hearing it. More often than not words like 'the truth" have a sort of etched unkindness about them, standing at a perfected distance, beckoning and imperious and underscoring a loneliness and longing that seems never to be requited.

And then sometimes the truth comes calling and only a jackass or a church would call it the truth. When the truth comes calling in this way, it is as if all the doors and windows are flung open in the first truly warm spring day ... cozy-cool breezes play about the ankles like some purring cat and you remember what it is like to be at home and at peace. Priests and poets and moneychangers alike are swept out of this wondrous temple and at last, as always, you belong to who you are. But it's just the truth ... and to say so is to impede its easy ways.

I have known such times at AA meetings and Zen sesshins and in strangely unimportant times, but the times were not often enough and sometimes I wonder why. When everything is always speaking the truth, why do I hover and retreat and not throw open the doors and windows ... and be at home? Were the experiences of the past just flukes or flights of fancy? I doubt my own heart and knowing ... until, out of the blue, I am confronted once more with the eternal springtime and my doors and windows are thrown open without ever lifting a finger. No, I was not crazy. Yes, there is a home and it is here and I write about it in full knowledge that writing about it is, in one sense, to slam the windows and doors shut, to retreat from what delights me most.

As usual, I came late to the party last night. The Public Television program Frontline rebroadcast what I had not seen in October when it first aired -- "The Undertaking," a program roughly based on a book by Thomas Lynch, a Michigan "undertaker and poet." The framework of the show gave Lynch room to roam as he reflected on the ways in which people approached death. It led the viewer through the steps -- the very practical and particular steps -- of dying and death. It was gentle and direct and, I suppose, an invitation into a world that everyone knows and no one talks about ... and in failing to talk, raises the imagination to frightening heights and depths with churches and other talismans to make sense of what needs no sense made of it.

I suppose Lynch was interesting, but he was not the one who bathed me in my own home, who threw open my doors and windows. There are many aspects of the program -- embalming, dressing the body, viewing, incineration, burial, how people viewed the death of loved ones or their own  ... all very quiet within Lynch's sometimes poetic overlay.

But the people who took me home were a young man and his wife as they tended to their 2-3-year-old son who had a mounting group of diseases that spelled inevitable death. A handsome couple who cradled the boy as his eyes darted here and there, who laid him in his crib, who suffered his seizures (not shown) and walked without any relief in sight towards the writing on the wall. The woman did much of the talking, but the husband's presence and willingness to be present also spoke. And, to put it in language that falls miles short of the truth, it was they who blessed me, who showed me that opening my doors and windows was nothing special. It was just life.

There was tragedy written on the woman's face. She did not weep the facile tears of some politician caught in an extra-marital affair. She barely wept at all. But you knew the grief because ... because, what the hell, you're human too. And you knew the courage because ... because, what the hell, you're human too. And you knew the inescapability because ... because, what the hell, life is not something any of us can escape. The doors and windows were open because ... because, what the hell, the doors and windows were never closed. It was heart-breaking and yet, in that broken heart -- the heart that beats in your chest and mine -- it was the place of something that surpasses anything called "the truth." It was life ... and, even in sorrow, it soared and was no longer lonely.

When the woman told of the boy's last moments, how he lay in his crib as she watched him and breathed his last breaths, it was truly powerful. She was stuck in a box canyon of facts. Fact, she loved her son. Fact, he breathed one last breath and was gone. Fact ... all she could do was say, "Go."

To wish others what they wish and to wish it completely ("Go") ... it made me want to cry and simultaneously there was no need for tears. This woman made me glad to be alive, to be a part of the same universe she inhabited, to be in the presence of someone who said, "yes you can" and to know without doubt that of course I could. She let me know that I was at home at last ... as always ... and that being at home, with the spring breezes curling delightfully around the feet, is just being at home in the place no one could ever leave.

It blew my socks off and, simultaneously, did nothing of the sort.

Watch The Undertaking on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

PS. The video is about 55 minutes long and has a skip point, but I believe
it's all there, for those interested in watching.


  1. I too think I am crazy :)

  2. This is beautiful. It exactly captures how it was for me when my husband suddenly took mortally ill, and we both knew he was going very soon. Solace was in the moment -- every conscious, knowing inhale and exhale -- even though it was full of grief; there was no other place. And after he died, I felt both desolation and inexplicable joy at the same time.