Life after death does not much interest me. It will be what it will be, and, as I wrote last time, I am content to let it take care of itself. This life is enough for me. Or, as Thoreau, I believe it was, said, one life at a time. Death, on the other hand, is another matter. If life interests me—and it does—then surely its end should also interest me. And it does.
I am currently re-reading Steinbeck’s marvelous novel, East of Eden. (Why most critics think Grapes of Wrath is his best novel is beyond me. But then maybe that why I’m not a critic.) East of Eden is one of those novels you—or at least I—have to read and re-read and then read once again. Every time I read it, it is a new novel. The first time I read it, I read it through the eyes of the young men, the young Adam and Charles, the young Samuel Hamilton, the young Lee, Aron and Caleb. Then I read it through the eyes of the middle-aged parents, middle aged Lee and Adam and Samuel. This time I am reading through the eyes of the aging Samuel Hamilton and, when I get to that section, the aging Lee.
The other night I read Chapter 23, sections 2 and 3, and it made me cry. This is the passage in the novel when Samuel realizes that he is getting old and that his days are numbered. There is a big family re-union at his “worthless” farm. (We in California would call it a ranch.) As hosting all such event does, it requires a lot of work and takes a lot out of Samuel. He exhausts himself and goes to bed before his children. Steinbeck writes, “He was puzzled at himself, not that he had to go to bed but that he wanted to.” (Page 282 in my edition—the scholar in me won’t quite let go!) His children then realize what has happened and what it means. And that is when I cried.
It surprised me. I may have cried at this section before because of the beautiful and tender writing. This time it was different. The beautiful writing was still there, to be sure. But this time, reading it through Samuel’s eyes, I saw what he saw. (And isn’t that the point of all great fiction, to lead people to see through eyes expanded by the eyes of the novel’s characters, these newly created people who will live far beyond our few years?) This time I saw my own life beginning to edge close to its conclusion, as Samuel’s life began to edge to its end. I am approaching my 72nd birthday. (March 26—and I expect all of you to wish me Happy Birthday!).
My parents are buried in the cemetery that surrounds the church in which I grew up. Several years ago I visited their graves and found myself wandering through the cemetery, looking at the graves of people I knew. My sister-in-law. Her parents. A few others. There are people buried there who I knew as young, as middle-aged, or as elderly. At least one was in high school with me when he died. Suddenly I realized that I was seeing the graves of people I thought of as old when I was a growing up, and yet they were younger than I am now when they died. It was a shock.
I have no idea how much longer I will live. None of us does. But when we are young and when we are middle aged, our death always seems remote, out there, real but not very, an abstraction. At my age, that changes. Now, I fully expect to live another 15 to 20 years. It could be less, and it could be more. Of course. And most of those years I expect to be productive in one way or another. There are the books I am writing, and there are the others that I expect to write. Now though, the writing of them begins to seem more important than the publishing of them.
I have performed all if my children’s weddings, and I dearly love watching their lives unfolding over the years and becoming real apart from me. I love even more dearly watching my grandchildren growing from infancy into adulthood. I have every expectation of holding great-grandchildren in my arms eventually, welcoming them into this beautiful world, and wishing them the love of life that I have known.
And we all know where this leads. Age beckons. I cannot hold my great-grandchildren in my arms and be 25 years old. I will be somewhere between 75 and 85 before I hold the first of these beautiful children. And the chances of them actually remembering me is minimal. And that it as it should be.
I have lived a life surrounded by the love of more people than I can even imagine. They have all taught me how to love, how the myriads ways of love weave a harmony of such glorious music that it enthralls us and enraptures us and reveals to us something of the divine within each of us. What a gift life has given me! If I could thank personally each person who has loved me I would have to live to be a very old man indeed. It would take me that long, and even then I would never be finished. But the dearest of you know who you are, and you know how deeply grateful I am and how deeply I love you.
I love this life and this beautiful world. And even as I love it, I know that the time will come for me to leave it, to pass it on completely. I have swum through life in a sea of love and beauty. No matter how it is that I may die, I will die into that love and beauty. And that is enough for me.