I’ve been spending quite a bit of time recently with a dear friend, Malcolm, who is dying of cancer. In fact, he has already lasted a lot longer than many predicted, despite not having eaten anything for several weeks. He has been an inspiration to me and others, and so have his family. He came home from the hospice a few weeks ago or so, and has been hanging in there. Most striking has been his resilient faith in the face of his inescapable mortality (about which we talk often). Which has inevitably got me reflecting on the subject further.
Having enjoyed her play, Art, a few years back, I was interested to pick up Yasmina Reza‘s short novel-cum-memoir Hammerklavier in a 2nd-hand bookshop the other day. [Incidentally, won’t one sad consequence of e-publishing dominance surely be the demise of the simple pleasures of browsing for second-hand bargains and surprises?]. She meditates on her relationship with her father and other friends, sparked in particularly by his awe for Beethoven’s monumental Hammerklavier Sonata and the fact that in old age he is no longer able to play it. It is a fairly slight and uneven book – but there are moments of insight and poignancy as others’ mortality forces her to reflect on her own.
A phrase that disturbs her on when visiting a dying friend is ‘the malice of time’. And then, perhaps inevitably, she thinks about her own family’s future.
One evening not long ago, I was watching my son from behind; he was two years old.
He was playing and I was looking at the back of his neck and his littleblack curls, and I thought of the old gentleman he will become with tight little curls of grey hair, short but still a little wavy, very soft, and old gentleman I will never see.
And who will know what I meant to him and how I lovingly touched him and cared for him? One day, he will die, and his children will bury him. At the cemetery they will weep and there will be a group of people I will never know, some my descendants perhaps, children who will run around oblivious… And who will know how I loved him, how I lovingly held him, how I once possessed him so completely, how he was mine and how I was everything to him for a time? That’s the malice of time. That’s what time is.
Isn’t it? (p18-19)
It’s agonising. Not least for any parent. But she’s absolutely right. And it echoes the ancients’ in their deep meditation on mortality. Our culture crassly dismisses such talk as morbid – but that is mere delusion and denial. Far better to face it. As the psalmist did:
The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. (Psalm 103:15-16)
It’s not a happy thought. But it’s a reality. And ultimately it’s hopeless. We yearn for it to be otherwise. The Japanese haiku poet Kobayashi Issa famously squirmed at Buddhist orthodoxy after the death of all of his children before he was 30 and the subsequent death of his wife. For he longed for there to be more to life than mere transience.
The world of dew
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet . . .
Which is why the very next verse of Psalm 103 is such a glorious ray of light.
But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear him and his righteousness with their children’s children. (Psalm 103:17)
It is God’s love that eradicates death’s mockery of human love. For when it breaks in, it is suddenly not the end. There is life after death after life. In Christ, there is love after death after love. Without that, there is nothing. I often think that if I wasn’t Christian I would have to be an existentialist. I simply don’t see any other view as having integrity.
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
Witnessing how someone ravaged by a dread disease can cling to that hope with every fibre of his being is a privilege indeed.