I met the shrouded one when I was in my teens. He had taken a liking to my older brother and two of his college friends and my introduction came after their holiday season rendezvous on a slippery icy road on the way to Bradley University.
I pretended to ignore him but his presence skulking on the sidelines of the funeral home drew me like a gerbil to a swaying cobra. Even as I recoiled in revulsion at the casket’s gaudy presentation - pancake makeup and thick rouge covering up the contusions and stitched-together cranium - I felt the lidless eyes of the Specter calculating when we would meet again.
Indeed, we had many encounters in the years that followed. He was not satisfied until I became an orphan, bereft of forebears.
I greatly feared his capricious nature. My quietude or lack of it was dependent on his mercy or wrath. I felt powerless over him.
And it was this acknowledgment - how helpless I and all sentient beings are to deter him from his sway - which ultimately led to my release from his grasp.
It came to me, if in fact my life was finite, why spend so much time bemoaning what was inevitable? Why not, instead, take advantage of every moment given to me in the here and now! I could cheat Death by reveling in a force greater than his – life!
The Reaper and I had caught each other’s eye frequently in recent years, most recently at my dying friend’s bedside. Emboldened by my insight I mustered the courage to sit next to him and engage him directly. With surprising grace he lifted the veil hiding the mystical jurisdiction that is the transition between heaven and earth.
Turns out he’s not quite the villain I feared him to be.
As we talked candidly about what lay ahead, it became clear that much of my fear was self-induced. “Look Death in the face,” he urged, “What do you see under the cowl of my imaginary robe?”
“Nothingness,” I replied, “only emptiness.”
“Exactly,” exclaimed the multi-named Thanatos. “Death is merely the resolution of a story arc that you create. It takes a lifetime to see the qualities that give the face its character. When you recognize the face of a man who has lived his life with humor, grace, and dignity, a man who became ever more compassionate and tolerant as he grew older, you need not be fraught with fear when taking what merely is the next step in life’s journey.”
I thought of the saying, we are alive as long as we are remembered. Death put his hand gently on my friend’s forehead as if to validate my thought and its meaning became clear; by living a principled life, giving it purpose through service to others, my affect would last long after I left this mortal coil.
As I said goodbye to my friend I saw Death in a new light, not as an unrelenting adversary but philosophically as a benefactor who gives us the gift of seeing the beauty of life.
I am not ready to hasten our final meeting, but I’m grateful to the Specter of Death for the role he plays. He takes the space of darkness so we can take the space of light.
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