The Cinch Review

More timely reflections from Richard John Neuhaus

It is one of many of Richard John Neuhaus’s unique gifts to this world that after his death there exist countless words of his own that can strengthen those who miss him. When it came to dying and indeed his own death, he literally wrote the book on it. The book is As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning. I quoted briefly from it yesterday and here is another excerpt (and what a beautiful piece of prose this truly is, of the kind that RJN was able to conjure so often):

It is this life never lived before and never to be lived again that is now coming to an end. A time for “Remember when?” in the intimate circle of those who shared this life. Remember when with tears, remember when with laughter. And, when memory has failed the one who is dying, it is a time for those who can remember to remind, in the hope that behind the fog of forgetfulness is, somewhere, a capacity to recall that has only lost its voice. Above all, it is a matter of being there, of offering to the helpless the last gift that is our helplessness — with the hope, please God, that a lifetime of confused reachings towards immortality will yet be vindicated.

This is the brute fact, however: There is an ending, and the sadness of it dare not be denied. When I was in the intensive-care unit, wired to so many bleeping and ticking machines that my body seemed at times to be part of the machinery, the words of Psalm 103 pressed upon my mind:

As for man, his days are like grass,
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.

“And its place knows it no more.” Our lives are like a blade of grass in a vast field of billions of blades of grass. Or I may think my life to be a flower, unique in its beauty. No matter, it is soon gone, and even the miniscule piece of earth that it occupied knows it no more. The bitterness is assuaged in part, but only in part, if in our lives we brought new life into being. People may think that they live on in the chromosomes and genes they impart to their children, but it takes only a little arithmetic to know that what we impart is halved, and with each generation halved again and again, until what is left is even more miniscule than the place that knows the blade of grass no more. Moreover, the life of a child, and even more a child’s child, is, as it is actually lived, formed by others — and by terrors, hopes and dreams — serenely indifferent to who we were. To those who come after us and to those who come after them, we are the past, the ever more distant past. They may try to remember fondly, but, in truth, they know us no more.

“Life must go on,” we say, and we know as we say it that we are also saying that lives must end. In sexual intercourse, human beings defiantly wave a little flag in the face of mortality and, in the excitement of the moment, can forget the futility of the gesture. Upon reflection, we understand that we have only played our little part in the relentless succession of blades and flowers whose places know them no more. And yet, and yet … It is no little thing to have played one’s part. And there is the irrepressible intuition that maybe, just maybe, it is part of a greater whole in which each little place remembers who once was there. That maybe, just maybe, the “forever” in the speaking of our love is not a delusion.