I’ve been thinking a lot about the fragility of life, how abruptly it can be threatened, how quickly it can end. My thoughts are fueled by the avalanche of deaths from the pandemic and the collateral damage from our related social ills. The six people who died from the January 6th terrorist attacks and the countless others whose psyches will be forever scarred. The dozens who have died from the February deep freeze that we were unprepared for. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many other casualties of our inability to respect life. Death is ever with us, and my current preoccupation has forced me to examine my own relationship with death.
I grew up with the reality of death hidden behind a tightly closed door. The first death I remember was when I was about three years old. My father’s mother, Anna, was in a nursing home in Brooklyn. When we drove there, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. My grandmother’s room was musty and barren. A large, round canister with cobalt blue liquid inside sat by the side of her bed. I kept staring at it, as if it held the mystery to this strange thing I couldn’t make sense of. My parents spoke in hushed tones; everything felt sad and dark. Was it something so awful no one could talk about it? Suddenly we stopped going to visit, though no one ever told me why. I don’t remember my parents ever speaking about her again. I am terribly sad that I never knew her; who she was, how she lived, the influence she had on our family.
I would find out later that my parents weren’t shielding me from death because I was young. It was simply that death was unspeakable. A wrenching awkwardness marked the passing of my mother’s parents and my father’s brothers as well. It wasn’t until my father’s death in 1992 that I began to understand and express my feelings about death, to understand that death was the one thing we all had in common and that by speaking of it we could learn how to fear it less and enjoy life more.
The Door is Open and the Light is On
A year ago a deadly virus brought the specter of premature death to everyone’s door. At the same time, it impaired one of the most potent antidotes to the fragility of life – the solace of friends, family, and community. When we needed them the most, our loved ones were often beyond reach – behind a mask, a screen, or across the divide of physical distance. So how do we cope with our own mortality while we remain stripped of the buffer that our loved ones and our communities provide?
Covid-19 has flung the door wide open. The haunting reality of being horribly sick, of suffering, of loss, and of no longer being alive is with us every day. It is difficult for me to reflect on this past year, with all its shocking turns and, for a long while, with no end in sight. I continue to think about the fact that we still aren’t talking about the death that is all around us. Sure, many people have told me of their fear of getting sick, of suffering, of spreading the virus. Very few, though, have talked directly about how they would feel to no longer be here. Or their fear of not having lived a life they wished for. On some level, we always know that we are moving a little closer to our death every day. We just don’t want to think about it.
When I think about the end of my life I can become submerged in sorrow. Never seeing my daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter, my former wife – the mother of our child. Never seeing my brother, sister-in-law, my niece and nephew, my stepfather. Never being with my Opportunity Lab family and clients. Missing my friends, many of whom I have known for 20, 30, 40 even 50 years. Did I do my best for them? Did we spend enough time together? What will be left unsaid, undone?
Thinking about not being here can make my stomach churn; my chest tightens, my breathing becomes shallow. My mind can become woozy and untethered. It can spin into regret for all of the mistakes I’ve made and the time I’ve wasted. It worries about all the things I want to do before I die and how badly I will feel if I won’t get to do them. What grounds me is the legacy of my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and colleagues who are no longer living. They aren’t here in physical form, yet I feel them every day. Their images grace my walls. I write about them, tell their stories, honor both what they taught me and what I have had to unlearn from them. They comprise the sinew of my being.
One of the ways I am learning to respond to the fragility of life is to acknowledge that a part of me will live on. Just like the people in my life who have passed on live on in my memory. My belief in this eternal presence helps me live in a more peaceful and present way.
Life After Death
I remember going to visit my mother’s grave about six months after she died. The summer blue sky, specks of clouds, and soft, warm breeze made time stop. I lay on my back, next to my mother, breathing in the grass. In this spot, a half a year before, I tossed a shovelful of dirt into the pit where her body is now. I rolled onto my knees, hunching over her flat headstone. It reads Barbara Shilo, 1923 to 2015 – Mother, Wife, Daughter, Friend, Artist, Activist. At that moment I realized that my mother lives on in my memory and in my imagination. As do all of the people who shaped me. It is their impact on me that inspires the words that I write, that informs the spaces I move in, that directs the places my heart goes.
It is in this way that my life will live on. What I do each day will add up to what I will leave behind. I want to live my life from this place of acceptance. The finiteness of life compels me to be present to my infant granddaughter’s discovery of her newfound capacity to shape her world. To my daughter’s discovery of the joys of motherhood. To my awe at how life emerges and evolves. It keeps me present to the good fortune I have to be alive, to the work that I do, and the caring and committed people I do it with. Being able to think about death, write about it, and share my feelings about it helps me be present to life. Knowing that life is finite, and knowing that it lives on.
I wrote this piece because the work we are doing at Opportunity Lab has caused us to think deeply about the reverence for life and how we can best support it. In the work that we do helping businesses grow consciously and sustainably, we have found it to be essential for the owners, leaders, and associates of companies to be thoughtful about the overall responsibilities we have for the resources we have been given, people being the most immediate. We hope that this piece is useful to you and your organizations in this way.
Main photo: Stefanie L. Frank | Sacred Space Visionary Creator | Co-founder Eskff Nest Woodstock, NY