I was at a film festival a few years ago, having just screened Griefwalker, and I was sitting beside Ian Tamblyn, one of Canada’s finest troubadours. We knew each other not at all, but it can happen that something like an Old Sorrow binds people for a time, to the moment of their meeting and to the uncharted lives that have brought them to it. And so Ian began telling me how it seemed that he had many people, friends of his own age especially, suddenly dying around him. I wondered with him whether it might not have come to be that he was old enough now that that was going to happen more and more, a sure sign that he wasn’t left out of life or its ways of carrying on. Ian Tamblyn and I sat quietly for a while after that, and then he looked off across the crowd of people and through the window, out onto the turning, widening gyre that is this world that we’ve been granted to, and he said, “Ahh, dying. That’s the Big Tent.”
And it is, of course, the Main Event, the gathering-in round which all others are gathered. We were both old enough that evening for all of that – the dying and the news and the steady parade making its way past us for now – to have deeply and truly begun. But no matter how many endings before our own have unspooled before us, none of this makes us ready to see it, not when all of that grinds away in a culture that resolutely does not believe in it. There’s nothing inevitable about getting it. There’s no microchip in your birth certificate or mine (though they are, I’ll grant you, probably working on this in the private sector, which might be the only sector left) that will prompt us towards candor or courage or wisdom or elderhood, or seeing what is there to be seen.
So, being ‘ready’ for a seat in the Big Tent is something that might come in after the fact – and maybe because of the fact – but rarely before so. And ‘sudden’? What makes one ending sudden, and another not so much? Well, ‘sudden’ doesn’t really come from how long the ending takes to end, no matter its brevity. A sudden ending isn’t sudden because it is quick. No, a sudden ending is sudden because, though it was there to be seen, and known, and lived, it wasn’t. ‘Sudden’, strangely, comes directly from the haphazardly guarded vault of what you claim to know. That’s where you’ll find it, in those times when you’re granted entry, that feel that something has occurred that careens out of the mists and into your days utterly, inconveniently and discourteously out of Nowhere. You seem to know it’s sudden, but you don’t seem to know why.
There are guards, you see, at the entrance to kingdom of what you know, Wizard of Oz style, whose vigilance is staunch but inconstant. And we could name them. Private Willingness is the corpulent one, the one without much on-the-job exercise, and Private Capacity is his generally gaunt and untested confederate. They oversee what goes in and what goes out of the unsecured trove of what you know, allowing in and out only what seems worthy. Endings are sudden when you slip past the guards, drop down into the musty ossuary of what you know and can’t seem to find the endings there. That’s why. Not feeling ready for the knowable heartache of ending, for example, sets us up for the prejudice, the certainty that we didn’t know about it because it was sudden and impossible to know, and not because we didn’t want to know about it.
Dying, a particular kind of ending, is a knowable thing not much known in our time. I don’t mean the day or hour of dying, though with practice and possessed of a certain burdensome gift these can be known. I mean the givenness of one’s death: that is entirely, mysteriously and calamitously knowable, and from what I’ve seen in the last few decades it isn’t much known. Someone wrote me recently and thanked me for this line in Die Wise: “You simply cannot tell from how most of us live that most of us know we will die.” And I would add now: “much less that most of us know we are dying when we are.” So, sudden death is sudden because it isn’t expected, or suspected, or in any way welcome, not because it is quick. The truth is that death is announced and pronounced, it is foretold and promised, and anointed with necessity and perfumed with purpose, a purpose that hangs suspended over the crevasse that opens between what you welcome and are comforted by on the one side and what you are given to realize and carry with you through the length of your days on the other.
This, to sound antique and continental and a bit belligerent, is all very well when we are bantering about Life over drinks or retreating in a retreat centre somewhere, but it is another thing entirely when we are dragged to the cliff edge of what seems just and merciful and knowable by something so scant in purpose that it conjures the Abyss, and offers us citizenship in Oblivion. One of those things, surely, is the suffering, and the withering unto death, of children. I devoted many pages of Die Wise to it, and I’m no more resolved or accepting of that withering now than I ever was.
Well, here may be the torment of the thing: Children are demonstrably not ‘too young to die’, no matter how often we might say such a thing. Children can as foreseeable die as the rest of us, and they do. Nor are children ‘at the beginning of their lives’, no matter their age. Children are as deeply in the fullness of their lives as some who are reading or writing these lines, perhaps in some instances more so. As many of you have heard me say over the years, children are incapable of ‘potential’, meaning that they are up until a few years before puberty incapable of calibrating the worth or the merit or the entitlement of their days according to how many days they haven’t yet lived, or won’t get to live. That particular disconsolate phantom comes to us a bit later in life, and once nestled in usually stays on for the duration.
Children’s capacity is in childhood, in not having yet learned the manner of ‘rights’, in mystification and ordinary awe, and they come to their trouble or their withering mystified and awestruck. Of course, they wish things were otherwise, especially when nursing those around them who are nursing grievance. But their example to the rest of us is not nostalgic, carried by a memory of a time less true or truer than this one. It is prehistoric, carrying a memory that what is true now has always been true, whether it was known and welcomed or not. Withering and dying children are for all this a powerful presence among us, a chance for us to get it right, a sojourn with the Gods.
There was a time when people I come from understood the withering and dying of children often as a consequence of the child’s proximity to the volatile presence of the Gods that grant us our days. They understood withering and dying children sometimes to be troubled by troubled, unsustained, unremembered ancestors. Children in the throes of afflictions we now have Greek or Latin sounding names for were once known to be in thrall to the Gods of Life and of Death, who were being crafted for deep service to life and to death by learning something of the mysteries of both. As it is, the Gods of Life and Death seem to have left us to our monolithic certainties, as perhaps have our unremembered ancestors, and we often gripe and grind in that orphanhood, free to concoct our own meaning of life and travail, utterly possessed of and by the untutored right to live, grudges at the ready.
I began writing this in the haze of interminable travel of the disembodying kind, in a departure lounge in LAX, a name which seems to raise anagram to the level of fate, bothered by a sound system so poorly achieved as to resemble a radio that can’t find a station. To make this trip I left tomorrow to get here now, such are the shenanigans forced upon us by the international date line that floats unclaimed and stateless in the Pacific. So the tone of the thing could be chalked up to fatigue. But I have this strange privilege now to be in many countries with many people forlorn and undone by their days, and I’ve also lived long enough to see the children of kith and kin wrangled by the mysteries of life, and some of them are dying now, and a few have done so, and this is what prompts me now. Sometimes at the bequest of those kith and kin, and sometimes without it, I have pleaded and made the case for these children’s lives being otherwise. And I’ve made the same case for a few of the countless ones that didn’t make it quite to their first breath. I don’t know why these things go as they do, any more than I know if the Old Gods will return to us and our abandoned ancestors might be inclined to forgiveness. What I’m counting on is that the meaning of these things is conjured and kept by how we live with them, and without them. That meaning is entrusted to us. We have things to learn about travail and endings, and children.
I end this writing sitting a few yards away from Nathalie Roy, co-conspirator of things Orphan Wisdom. She has been grinding shells into beads as I do so, thinking as she does of the children we know who are so far as I can tell being visited by the Gods of Life and Death, and petitioning on their behalf with her small, beautiful treasures. These words are my beads for now. Would that the children and their families and their peoples and Gods take them as mystified Amens.