What is Death
Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
that we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference in your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without affect,
without the trace of a shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolutely unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you,
for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just around the corner.
All is well.
I’ve been thinking about this poem a lot the last couple of weeks. When I was at church the Sunday before Lent began, we were celebrating, as our congregation always does, with a wonderful brass band. It’s made up of some exceptionally talented members of our community, and when they play for us (typically on that Sunday and on Easter), it energizes everyone. For an hour, it felt like Mardi Gras had truly descended on us. The only downside to this particular service is that every year at its conclusion, we sing a hymn called “Glory Glory (Since I Laid My Burdens Down).” It’s one of my favorites, and it also happens to be a song that I asked to have included in my grandmother’s memorial service a few years ago.
My grandmother and I were very close. We spent a lot of time together, just the two of us, especially until I was about ten, and even after I moved three thousand miles away in my twenties, I tried to come back and visit her four or five times a year. As she got frailer in her nineties, I still enjoyed going out to sit by the river with her, or to get an ice cream because she managed to keep her good humor and sharp wits about her nearly to the end. I’m sure her body often hurt, that she was frustrated when she couldn’t speak as quickly as she wanted or dig into a ham sandwich on rye with the vigor she’d had even at eighty-five, but she never complained to me. She was practically blind by then (a particular sorrow for a woman who dearly loved to read), but she would sit and hold my hand, enjoying the sunshine and listening with eagle ears to the busy world around us.
After she was gone, I realized that many of my earliest memories were of her. She taught me to read and write in cursive long before those activities might have interested me in school. She had such beautiful handwriting, and she would write me little stories so I could practice deciphering the text and rewriting it myself. When we ate lunch together, she would pull out two pretty aluminum tv trays and set them up in front of the bay window in her apartment; I would spread out the special embroidered place mats and together we would make peanut butter sandwiches cut twice to form four triangles. As we ate, we would sit and watch the commuter trains go by and she would listen quietly while I talked (and talked and talked).
As the second child, I especially appreciated and craved the kind of dedicated love and respect she gave to me. She never expected anything of me other than to exhibit a joy for learning new things; she saw the world as an adventure waiting to unfold, and she wanted me to see and believe that too. In return, I never questioned the old-fashioned nature of our favorite past times – stringing wooden beads, or playing Authors, or learning to read aloud sentences from the worn books in her old wooden chest. She would crawl under tables with me to play pirates and into bushes that had holes just the right size for the two of us. My faith in her as a playmate and confidante was absolute.
I think of her often, but never more so than when I hear that particular song – a spiritual written about finding, finally, a release from trouble and pain. It’s a joyful song, especially when played with unbridled enthusiasm by a brass band and sung by 250 people, but it never fails to make me cry by the third verse (I feel better, so much better, since I laid my burdens down). I don’t like to cry in public, so I usually end up mouthing the lyrics through to the end while trying to pretend that everything is completely fine. It’s probably a futile exercise, but I persist because the wave of sadness it brings reminds me of Holland’s simple verses – that the pain of loss should not taint the joy of who a person was in life.