I have a confession to make.
I am a coward.
Some people say they laugh in the face of death.
I snivel and shiver – and run away. I was the original Sir Robin, long before Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
This all began when I attended a school play, Our Town, at Ipswich High. I must have been between 10 or 12. I am sure my parents thought it was okay – after all, it was a just a school play.
Trouble was, Thornton Wilder’s classic drama took place in a mythical place, Grover’s Corners, which sounded and felt a lot like Ipswich. And the characters, especially George Gibbs and Emily Webb, seemed pretty real. And the cemetery where several characters end up as shadowy ghosts, overlooking the town, looked a lot like Ipswich’s Old North or Highland Cemetery.
At the end of the play, I believe Thornton Wilder wanted me to appreciate life, every single day.
Instead, the message I took away was that the whole concept of death was a really bad idea.
It didn’t help that a decade later I went to see the Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal, starring Max Von Sydow as a knight in the Middle Ages who sits down to play chess with Death – and loses.
I’m not very good at chess. In his position, I would have suggested a good New England game: cribbage. But I realized you don’t get to choose.
Layer onto this the fact that I was brought up going to the old St. Joseph’s church, where pastors painted a pretty grim picture of the afterlife if you so much as cast a sideways glance at that pretty dark-haired girl in the next pew. Which, by the way, I had already done.
My spousal unit, on the other hand, is Buddhist. She believes she will be coming back as an antelope or an aardvark. No worries about sideways glances.
As you might imagine, I have therefore managed to push thoughts of the inevitable as deeply into the dark recesses of my subconscious as possible.
As, I expect, have you.
But the current situation – the one we are all collectively living – has caused me to be more realistic.
It has also given me more free time. Normally, I am teaching at a college and consulting; but this spring I was supposed to be traveling to places like Ecuador and Panama with my youngest brother, Tom. We all know how that ended up.
With all of this unexpected free time (and realizing you can only walk your dog so many times), a task my spouse and I have undertaken is creating an inventory of all of our “stuff” – paintings, posters, wall hangings, bric-a-brac, photographs, etc. – scattered around our empty-nest house.
We are cataloguing the items: where obtained and any story behind the acquisition.
The idea is to help our two children out when it comes to the day when they have to make sense of it all.
I am inspired to do this by a couple of things.
First, my older cousin, in his own now-ample spare time, started sending my siblings and me photographs of great aunts and uncles, asking if we could identify anyone. As so often happens, the people who took the pictures had not thought to write names on the back.
Second, I had memories of the passing of my parents – when the dispersal of belongings, while not fratricidal, was less than perfect.
(I am still plotting to get my mom’s French-fry potato-cutting device back into rightful hands – mine.)
Our idea is to provide our two children with a written document, complete with pictures, that will allow them to not only divvy things up, but understand context and meaning. We have told them that once I am at St. Peter’s Gate (and their mother is enjoying her next life as an aardvark), they should hold a kind of NFL-style draft, taking turns picking what they want. Realistically, of course, they may not want much, but that’s okay, too – it can be sold to benefit a charity or whatever.
We also revised our will – it was so out-of-date that it assigned guardians to our 29- and 27-year-old kids.
My point here is that if someone as reality-phobic as me can use this crisis to get things in order, anyone can. And, with any luck (and some good hand-washing), you’ll be 20 years ahead of the game.
One last note regarding Our Town: the next year’s school play was Bye Bye Birdie. I left singing a happy tune.