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.
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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.
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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.
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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.