A funny thing happened on the way to the theater the other night. A friend was driving and while we sped along the darkened streets, she admitted her vision wasn’t as good as it used to be. Like me, she’s in her 70’s so I wasn’t surprised by her confession but noted it was first time she’d admitted old age was creeping up on her in degenerative stages. Her awareness came as a gentle awakening compared to that of another friend who’d recently learned she had stage 3 stomach cancer.
Confronting death at less than 50 paces takes a courage. Those who are allowed to age gracefully reach their destination by slow degrees, sometimes barely noticing. Then, one day a tooth needs to be pulled or there’s an ache in the lower back that refuses to go away. Or we can no longer walk a hill with the same speed as before. Death by stealth doesn’t require us to face the end as a single gasp with our faculties brought into sharp focus.
Earnest Hemingway was fascinated with death which explains why he admired bull fighting. At the height of a summer day, with the sun bursting like a boil in the clear sky, the bullfighter, armed with only his cloak, confronts 1600 lbs of horned death knowing that at any second his life could be extinguished. At such times, every fiber of his body is alert to the difference between being and not being. In that moment, Hemingway writes in Death in the Afternoon, the bull fighter experiences the highest potency of being aware.
Perhaps Hemingway was more of a romantic than he realized. Most of us, when faced with imminent death or death by slow degrees are unlikely to feel anything but fear. Courage comes later, like a reluctant bride. Only after the anger passes, after we accept that we have been careless with a gift beyond price, do we begin to feel a tenderness for what we are about to lose. That tenderness gives us strength, the courage to live our remaining days or hours as nobly as we can for as long as we can.
Whether we face death like the bull fighter, as burst of revelation, or after years of distraction, one day it will come. Those who prepare for its arrival by keeping the shadow of its presence fixed within the corner of their eye are the best equipped to live.
(Courtesy of iberosphere.com)
(Originally published 6/3/24)