November, for me, is a natural month to ponder the passage of time from birth to dying. Typically, October winds and rain in Canada’s Pacific Southwest leave many trees barren as they stand soldierly for All Saints’ Day on the 1st. And with the dying year our hearts grow perhaps more attuned to hold vigil for those who have passed. This year I have mourned the passing of four beloved souls. And we have been mourning the passing of our beloved Queen Elizabeth II.
With November also comes my birthday, as well as Remembrance Day on the 11th, the War Remembrance Day that began in 1919 after World War I. In an earlier blog, “A Time for Remembering,” I’d pondered what the 11th day can continue to mean for us now. Today, I return to a comment I made in my September blog, “Omi’s Coming-of-Age Story,” in which I said the character Omi in Letters to Annie is “writing toward her own death.”
In September I wrote, “At age 63, Omi is definitely in ‘autumn’ when Annie is born but has this extensive season of grace into advanced winter to discover how she has responded to the extravagant gift of life. With each letter she writes she realizes more that she is writing toward her own death. She’s trying to say the things that matter to her while she still can, and say them in such a way that Annie might be able to hear her (at the time and maybe when she is gone).” Likewise, as I’d mentioned in my Author’s Note, while not a grandmother myself, in writing this book I wanted to take the time to say some of the things I’d wish to say, if I could, in the future.
Dare I return to this claim, my character Omi is “writing toward her own death,” and so challenge myself and my readers to consider our own? Is this a morbid or a prudent thought? Unhealthy or wholesome?
As I was writing Letters to Annie, putting myself in the place of the fictitious Omi-character (and of course we are all of the characters as we write, so I’m just as much “Annie” as I am the other characters who’ve found themselves into the book), I realized with increasing intensity the obvious point that Omi writes (lives) everything through the lens of the pressure of evaporating time. Don’t we all? Maybe we do, but when we forget we are the poorer for it, I think. How much precious time is misspent when we forget?
However, when we’re more aware of our decreasing means to do the many things we’d still love to do, the danger of morbid thinking is a real one. But as I worked with Omi’s growing consciousness that she was indeed writing toward her own death, doing what she could for her granddaughter Annie while she could, my experience felt not only prudent but became progressively fruitful.
Here’s how. The awareness that opportunity doesn’t come around the same way again heightens our sense of the preciousness of our days. Just as C. S. Lewis has said, “There are no ordinary people” (“The Weight of Glory”), we’d have to likewise add, “There are no ordinary days.” Each day is a unique gift, bringing not only its unique challenges but also its unique blessings. Let’s not waste the day on trivia. Let’s guard against toxic ideas, emotions, and actions. In other words, writing toward one’s own death, which is really living toward one’s own death, means we’re more prone to choosing wisely with the result that we’re better able to transform from being static people for whom seemingly little can change to becoming dynamic people who initiate change. We become increasingly present to the moment, and therefore living our lives to the fullest. The awareness of living toward one’s death (with the emphasis on living) acts like a magnifying glass revealing noteworthy details. Or like a crucible in which the various particulars of our lives undergo yet higher pressure, often painful at the time, but resulting in a new creation.
In writing Letters to Annie I was almost always contemplating Omi’s consciousness—and so my own—of aging and dying. Letter 33 is Omi’s last letter. If you knew you would get to write one last letter (or better yet, if you treated each letter you wrote, each text, each phone call, each visit, as if it could be your last), what would you like to write?
Writing toward—living toward—one’s own death can provide life-giving lessons. And through the fairy tales that I addressed in Letters to Annie, lessons about death—and therefore how we should live—showed up in various ways. Here are a few:
The threat of death can lead to needed courage
to resist this last enemy. If we consider death to be unnatural, that is, contrary to how life is meant to be, and therefore the enemy to fight, then we welcome, for instance, the rising courage of Hansel and Gretel as they discover how to defeat the witch who would otherwise overcome them (see Letter 24). Similarly, in an ageist culture which rejects the value of the lives of elders, where, as I’m told, even people who are barely 40 are sometimes written off with “it’s because you’re old,” the animal quartet in “The Bremen Town-Musicians” is a marvelous testament to the chutzpah we need. The bravery they show in their senior years, defying potential despair, results in the joy of new beginnings (see Letter 29). All of us, young and old, need such boldness.
There is something more terrible than death.
In a world that frequently esteems romantic love leading to marriage as the mark of a fulfilled life, Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” story surprises and often disappoints. She does not marry the prince. She dies. What kind of a happy ending is that?! But while Andersen does not deny the beauty of romantic love in marriage, neither does he elevate it to the mark of becoming a living soul. Quite the opposite. In this fairy tale, the quest for becoming a living soul is the ultimate one, greater than the one for romantic love. The real kicker is this: for those characters who are fixated on lesser things, it’s clear that there is something more terrible than death (see Letter 11).
The other side of death
is Life Everlasting. Ah, so death is not the end. “Death, thou shalt die”—as John Donne ends his famous sonnet, “Death, be not proud.” But the passage to the Other Side, the journey through the valley of the shadow of death, can be so very difficult, so very frightening, we know.
In Letter 13, Annie burying Omi in autumn leaves they’d raked became a metaphor for me that led to Omi contemplating one of my favourite passages in Narnia: the story of King Caspian’s death and what happens next in The Silver Chair. What is supposed to be a joyous reunion with his long-lost son Prince Rilian quickly turns to a doleful dirge. Death takes Caspian. But then Aslan takes the children Eustace and Jill to his Mountain where they see the dead king. And then, oh then—but you must read this remarkable scene for yourselves! It’s in the last chapter, “The Healing of Harms.”
Writing toward Omi’s own death, and so in a sense toward my own, has not infrequently reminded me of the opening line of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet where he asks, “What if this present were the world’s last night?” In his essay by the same title, “The World’s Last Night,” C. S. Lewis suggests that we can teach ourselves more and more to evaluate our thoughts and actions in light of eternity. What will our present thoughts and actions look like then, “not for the electric lights of the present world but for the daylight of the next”?
My hope for readers is this: that the lessons about death in these various fairy tales will inspire you to live well, with renewed courage and hope, with faith, with joy.
To learn more about fairy tales and their lessons about death and courage, and more, remember to pick up your copy of Letters to Annie.
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Watch for my December blog: “A Cousin’s Paper Star.”