Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Facing Death, and Facing Life

During the summer of 2006, my father became very ill with cancer and complications from its treatment. I've written a little about that experience--in prose and in poetry.  None of us expected him to live more than a few months, including my father himself.

As Dad got sicker and sicker, he planned his funeral: an elaborate celebration of all the things he loved and all the friends he made around the world over the course of his life.  He called his close friends to ask them if they would come: great musicians from a huge number of traditions, writers of beautiful books from many genres, teachers and thinkers from almost every continent.  They all said yes, and many cried.

My father cried, too.  His tears--incredibly--were neither from fear of death nor from sadness.  They were instead a response to the wonder and pleasure of seeing what he had created and with whom he had surrounded himself over the course of his lifetime.  He had come to terms with his own death, saying that he had never imagined living as long and as joyful a life as his had been.

*  *  *

I thought of how family and friends dealt with my father's serious illness as I read about how Gilgamesh grieves at the death of his friend Enkidu.

Gilgamesh mourns Enkidu and feels his loss intensely.  "My beloved friend is dead, he is dead, my beloved brother is dead," he cries.  "I will mourn as long as I breathe, I will sob for him like a woman who has lost her only child."  In his moment of grief, Enikdu is everything to him: he is his friend, lover, brother, mother.

It is from Enkidu's death that Gilgamesh begins to realize that he himself will die.  "Must I die too?" he asks.  "Must I be as lifeless as Enkidu?"  Of course, Gilgamesh knew he was mortal before this moment.  He even bragged that by slaying Humbaba, he would make a name for himself that would last beyond his own life.  "Why be afraid," he asks then,"since sooner or later death must come?"  When he said these words, death had no relevance to the king.  But then his "mirror self"--Enkidu--died.

Shocked by the sudden realization of what death really means, Gilgamesh travels in search of immortality.  After much journeying, he stops at the Brew-pub at the Edge of the World--mighty nice to know you can find one even in the outskirts of humanity--owned by Shiduri.  After he pours out his heart to her, she warns him that he will not find what he is looking for.  "You will never find the eternal life that you seek.... Humans are born, they live, and then they die," she says (as translated by Mitchell).  "Until the end comes, enjoy your life, spend it in happiness, not despair.  Savor your food, make each of your days a delight, bathe and anoint yourself, wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean, let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand, and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.  That is the best way for a man to live."

But Gilgamesh cannot hear her.  "What can your words mean," he asks, "when my heart is sick for Enkidu who died?"  He travels on through the dangerous Waters of Death until he reaches Utnapishtim, whom the gods had given eternal life.  Gilgamesh shares his tail of grief, and Utnapishtim and his wife share why they were given immortality.  (I'll talk a little more about their interesting story next Monday.)

After hearing how desperate Gilgamesh is, they eventually offer him a plant which will restore youth to anyone who consumes it.  Unfortunately, Gilgamesh loses the treasure to a wily snake who gains the ability to shed his skin and become young again.  Gilgamesh begins to realize that he must accept not only his friend's death but his own mortality.  He returns to his city, seeing the mighty walls of Uruk and imagining the its inhabitants, and enters back into life.

* * *

The story of Gilgamesh reminds us that human beings are defined in a fundamental way by our drive to tell our stories.  "Common Reader" Dwight recognized the deep themes of story-telling in a lovely post a few years ago: "What does it mean to be human? What separates us from the animals? Since man must die, how should he spend the time he is given? What part does friendship play for people? What is the ultimate journey that man makes? No easy answers are provided, but that people almost 5,000 years ago were raising these questions and celebrating what makes us human gives insight into the human condition." Beautifully said.

*  *  *

My father survived those very difficult months and, despite deficits and changes due to the cancer and the treatment, he recovered and is now himself again.  He has embraced again the life that he believed he had to let go of.  Very happily, his friends will be gathering to celebrate his life and gifts next month.  I can't wait to be there.

23 comments:

  1. What a life affirming story about your father. I am so glad he can enjoy the celebration he so lovingly planned.

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  2. That's an amazing story about your father.

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  3. That's it! That quote in boldface that begins "Until the end comes" is the one we and our friends shared on a summer night out by the meadow. It was a different translation, but I recognize the ideas.

    What a lovely surprise that your father recovered! You put all of this together beautifully.

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  4. Aviva: Thanks so much for stopping by and for your lovely comment. His life has always been a celebration of both music and history. While the conference in his honor is not the celebration he planned back then exactly, I am sure he will love everything his friends have planned for him!

    Amanda: It was such an amazing thing to see. I hope as I age, and as I confront the deaths of the ones I love, I can remember what he was able to be at that moment.

    P.J.: Wonderful! That sounds like a perfect evening. Aren't those words to live by??

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  5. What a beautiful story. A joyful embrace of his life that thankfully continued. Especially appreciate how you bring your personal experience to Gilgamesh, how your illustrate so well the power in writing/telling one's own story.

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  6. I hadn't read that story since I was young, great story...

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  7. Frances: Thank you for your kind comment. There is something about these ancient stories that calls to us and makes us feel them deeply.

    CHo Meir: I'm so glad to see you here! And thrilled to hear you have read Gilgamesh. We must get together sometime soon.

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  8. What a beautiful and meaningful post. As my own father passed away last year after a long illness, I was especially touched by your story. What joy for your family that your father has recovered!

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  9. This is such a wonderful post. The story about your father has me teary, and the tie-in with Gilgamesh is beautiful. The bolded quote you cited was one of my favorites in the epic. How true it is, and how amazing that after thousands of years, it still rings true.

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  10. Thanks for the wonderful story and the kind words. By coincidence, I lost my father about a year before I read Gilgamesh and found the issues raised in it particularly moving.

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  11. Angela: Thank you so much. Dealing with death is such a difficult thing, even when we know that a person has lived a long and happy life. I'm so sorry you have had to go through the death of your own father. On the other hand, there is something so powerful about death that reminds us not to let any moment go, to live life as fully as possible. My thoughts are with you.

    Erin: Thank you very much. My family has been so pleased to have Dad with us a little longer. I've been wondering today if early literature was so focussed on mortality because of how it moves us, focusses us, in such a personal way. Memories of our own losses make those universal stories resonate so deeply--and that must have been true in ancient times as well.

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  12. Dwight: I am so glad you stopped by. Your post was extremely powerful and echoed so much of what I felt as I read. Thank you so much.

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  13. This is a very beautiful tribute to your father

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  14. Thank you, mel u. He's a pretty amazing man.

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  15. This post was such a pleasure to read. I love the way you connect a classic work of literature to the reader's emotional life. Your tribute to your father was touching. I look forward to reading many more of your posts.

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  16. What a lovely comment, Biblio. I appreciate your support. I think great literature often touches us deeply and brings out our own stories. Glad to have you here.

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  17. Interestingly, the words you quote from Sidhuri are almost identical to those of Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 (which seems to be quoting the epic or at least referring back to some common tradition). For some reason the editor of the final, most popular version of Gilgamesh left out these words and they are only preserved in an early, old Babylonian fragment. However, in the later version Utnapishtim echoes somewhat similar sentiments when he speaks to Gilgamesh about the brevity of life and the way of fools.

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  18. Like everyone else, I love the story about your father! Shiduri was one of my favourite moments in the story, so I was delighted to see you quoting her here. :D

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  19. I'm so glad your father is now okay. My cousin was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 20 in 2009, and things haven't been the same for our family since. I'm turning 20 this April, and my cousin's illness really put a lot of things into perspective.

    We studied Gilgamesh in class about two semesters ago, but my teacher focused on Gilgamesh's arrogance. It never occurred to me that the epic has a lot of deep insights about mortality. Great post. :)

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  20. Your love for you father resonates throughout that beautiful post. Nicola

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  21. What a wonderful post. I've never thought about reading Gilgamesh but after reading your post, I want to. Have a great week.

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  22. Humbahaha: Thanks! I had completely missed the link to Ecclesiastes. Have you done any academic scholarship on Gilgamesh or other Mesopotamian writing? I'm so glad to have you sharing your knowledge here.

    Eva: I appreciate it. Isn't hers a wonderful message?

    Darlyn: I'm so sorry to hear about your cousin's illness. What a very hard thing. Some of us do not have to learn much about mortality until we are a bit older. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

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  23. Nicola: He's a very special man and I am honored to have him as my father. Thank you for stopping by.

    Vasilly: I am so flattered that my posts might inspire you to read the book. I highly recommend it--and it is a very quick read. Can't wait to hear what you think.

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