In one of the many rules St. Benedict wrote for his 6th-century religious community, the father of Western monasticism directed his monks to “remember to keep death before your eyes daily.” A dour suggestion at first blush, Benedict was urging his followers to contemplate the sacred beauty that is existence in order that they might live every day with as much intention as possible.
I don’t have much trouble keeping death in mind. A soon-to-be (what I’d prefer to regard as) youthful 62-year-old man—a decade or more away from genuine decrepitude—I nevertheless can feel gravity pulling me “more insistently,” as the author Martin Amis put it, toward the center of the earth with each passing day.
Born in 1959—the peak of the Baby Boom—today I see many of my contemporaries hobbling about; sometimes I come across one of them standing at the foot of an intimidating flight of stairs, looking up, and sighing. They’re in as bad shape as I am, some much worse. There is cold comfort in that. As a guy who’s been banged up a lot (various beatings, a cracked skull, a janky back, and knees that are the ruined fruit of a 34-year bartending career), I’ve never—and I thank God for this—been sick. (Though I’m not quite arrogant enough to believe this can’t change in the blink of an eye.)
In January of this past year, a lifelong friend was brought low by an especially nasty case of Covid, which landed him in an intensive care unit for over a week. I was in touch with him through text—he didn’t have the breath to speak—but he was convinced that he was at the end, his notes peppered with comments like “This is it for me,” and “I’m not gonna make it.”
I hardly had the final say, or any say, really, but I was having no part of his pessimism. Here’s a guy who’d told me mere weeks before that he’d just enjoyed his best financial year ever (and he’d been doing pretty well for a while). The father of five, one grandchild here, two more on the way—he had everything to live for. Knowing nothing about his medical prognosis, I assured him that this simply wasn’t his time.
A curious concept, that: his time, your time, my time. No one knows the day or the hour, as the Lord reminded us, and since He never said anything that wasn’t true, I’m bound to go along with that.
In late August, in the performance of something as mundane as the purchase of dog food, my father-in-law, Columba Joseph Harty, was struck by a large motor vehicle and lost his life a few days later as the result of the awful injuries he sustained.
The accident took place in Western Canada, where Colm had moved circa 2001with his wife Judy, my mother-in-law. The two of them thrived in this town, and I’m writing this from the kitchen table they bought to furnish the cute, comfortable home that now belongs to Judy alone.
Did Colm suspect that morning that this would be his last viable day on this planet? I doubt it. Or, like Zorba the Greek, did he live as if he were never going to die? Probably not. I can’t say that wouldn’t be the more advantageous approach, but I do know this: You can fill your plate with all the vegetables you’re able to gag down and ingest nutritional supplements too, maintain a count of the thousands of cigarettes you passed up smoking, execute the most unlikely yoga postures, hell, even indulge in cosmetic surgery, and guess what? Your number is still going to come up, and possibly a lot sooner than you think.
My friend pulled through as, honestly, I was pretty sure he would. He emerged from what can only be considered a near-death experience—marked by days’ worth of moment-to-moment anxiety over his own mortality—a shaken and rearranged man.
We spoke shortly after he regained enough strength to do so. Not normally an emotional person (unlike your creampuff of a correspondent), he wept as he detailed the outpouring of love and compassion that had overwhelmed him when he was sick. Naturally, I cried too. I didn’t want to lose him. Not yet.
Colm left a will to sort through, and property, and a gigantic mess (the hodgepodge of artwork alone!), in the wake of his passing, a mess and a void, as will most of the rest of us. If he were around to hear it, he might be taken aback, as my friend was, to learn just how many people cared deeply for him. I want to believe that’s true for most of the rest of us as well, no matter how we might be feeling about ourselves on any given day.
I hope I’m not coming off too morbidly here, in this month of November, this month of Holy Souls, because I certainly don’t feel that way. In remembering to keep death before my eyes daily, my objective is to remain just as strong as I can for as long as I can, fully and wholly alive.