Saturday, February 4, 2012

Intimations of Immortality

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy.
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still in Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away.
And fade into the light of common day.

~William Wordsworth ~

It's rare for me to find "cause of death" records in my research of my ancestors. But the mortal me is always subconsciously trying to beat the system and asks the question, "How did he die?" when looking at lives lived centuries ago and ones that I'm enjoying in the present as they approach that inevitable door that opens only once  and locks quietly behind.

So when I find a cause of death I'm intrigued. There are clues in those records that add a piece to the puzzle of who someone was, or at least to the quality of their life.

The record for registered deaths in the city of Somerville, Massachusetts in 1900 included the death of Charles Deforest Johnson. He was almost 51, and had been married for 27 years. Who attended the graveside services that November day in Everett, Massachusetts as the coffin was lowered into the freshly dug plot in the Woodlawn Cemetery?

Charles' parents had already died by then, but his three brothers were probably there supporting his widow. I found it amusing that the three remaining siblings of eight were the ones named after presidents William Henry Harrison, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. Imagine THAT obituary! 

He and his wife Henrietta both came from families of nine children. Yet they were childless. What were they thinking as Charles' death approached? 

I was touched and relieved as I briefly studied his cause of death, kidney disease. I was comforted. One more blessing added to my growing pile that has come through my family history research. You see, I know people who suffer from this disease. I understand the change in the quality of life. And I hate to see people suffer. 

I read the following quote yesterday and every time I woke up during the night it was there. I couldn't escape it. 

"Death from kidney failure is generally considered a gentle death. In fact, many physicians and nurses would choose to die of kidney disease rather than any other illness."

So here we are looking at Charles, Henrietta, and me. I know what his fate was. I have it in black and white. I ponder those last days with Charles. How quiet they must have been. I imagine the serenity as he slipped away in his sleep, no pleading for mercy to take him early.

I'm left in awe of the gift the two of them were given and I cry. What a blessing to be allowed to finish in peace and to focus on his immortality!

I have made many assumptions about people and how impending death could or would cause them to change. Some people use the wake up call to pay attention to life's blessings and to express outwardly their gratitude for having lived a life. Others stay quiet and never share the deep thoughts and changes going on inside. There are no visible manifestations that the looming event has registered. 

I am humbled to know that I can't change how a person lives a life. I can only take what I'm learning from what I'm observing and ask if I'm being truly grateful, with outward expressions, that I've received the wake-up call that that door is right in front of me and that I've taken every advantage of every opportunity to lift, inspire, and comfort one more soul with the time I've been given today.

Will I listen more intently, hug tighter and longer, and smile more often? Maybe for a few minutes I will. But inevitably I slip back into feeling immortal and save those moments for another day. 

Eventually those moments will run closer and closer together and as I practice living in the moment, time will feel more precious and I will feel richer for having chosen to give more of me away.

Reminds me of this quote:

"He that findeth his life shall lose it: 
and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it."  (Matthew 10:39)

I hope the same for you; that we will be more outwardly focused and seek to lift, comfort, and inspire in the midst of our grand adventure we call mortality.


  1. Hug tighter and longer, Betsy. I've been doing it of late.

    Oh, and Wordsworth is like a god to me.

  2. Whatever your problems. Whatever your fears. You can still love. You can still shine. No matter what you’ve done [wrong].

    1. Yes, Stan. I agree. And mine are magically dwarfed as I do. There really is no better way to live!
      Than you for your thoughts.

  3. Sends Smiles and ((hugs)) to a great friend who sent them to me!



  4. Of course these days Charles would likely be in a large public hospital with well meaning but nonetheless zealous Drs trying to save his life. He would be attached to a dialysis machine while a donor match is searched for. There would be little time or place for serenity. Little respect for the natural process of life and death. Yes, going to the brink of death teaches us, shows us things we need to to know, to learn, however - I believe - the greatest lessons come from living, the day to dayness of life where the dramas are smaller, the cacophony less. This is where the reverberations are greatest. None the less,I like the way you think.


What do you think? I'd love to know.