Changing Thoughts of Death

THREE times before I was ten years old, death came into our house.

Grandmother, who lived with us, and who had taught Fanny and me to read, died when I was six. Fanny and I talked about her death. Fanny was eight. When Christmas came again, Fanny astonished me by asserting that Grandmother had been alive at the previous Christmas. This I could not believe, truthful as I knew Fanny to be. Death had instantaneously removed Grandmother far in time, as she was far in space; far from associating with such things as Christmases; they were incongruous even to speak of in connection with her. I could have summed up my whole conception of death then in the word ‘gulf.’ So engulfing a thing it was to die, that Grandmother seemed thenceforth never to have lived. She had only moved mysteriously and touchingly among those of us who were really alive, as one who was set apart to die.

When I was eight years old, Fanny herself died; bright-haired Fanny, the fast runner. I never asked father or mother where she had gone. I felt that a sort of dark disgrace had crept over her, and drawn her away; and again, as with Grandmother, the shadow reached backward and darkened all her previous life. She too had been set apart to die. It seemed as if we must have known it always, and as if she must have known it, too, and felt the black magic, like a witch, whispering doom at her elbow. Strange, gruesome, and unfathomable death! turning grandmothers and sisters into ghostly strangers!

Our mother, and the two aunts who came out West to spend the winter with us, all three dressed in black. They wore crape veils. When people asked about Fanny, what had been the matter with her, they talked with loving yearning about her illness; how unexpected, how baffling it had been.

My little brother and I were rosy and fat, we romped and played, we went to bed early and slept well, we had good appetites, our nerves were tranquil, our lives were regular and pleasant. We seemed to have nothing morbid in our minds; and yet I believe that from my own mind, at least, the shadow of death was never wholly absent. If I ‘caught cold,’ I thought that I was an acolyte of death, and that fatal ‘complications’ would ‘develop’; an hour of hearty indigestion would make me feel the sides of my coffin rising round me.

At Easter of that year our mother died, and Carl and I slipped naturally into the already homelike care of those two loving and familiar aunts. They brought us up in the New England village of our ancestors, a village thenceforth deeply beloved by us. It is in a valley renowned for its beauty. The beauty of this valley, without any reason that I know of, did away with some of my superstitious fear of death. How do bliss and beauty do away with fear? Perhaps they only fill the heart and crowd fear out. They flood the darkness with light (a thing to remember in bringing up children).

When I was older, I sometimes went to funerals. They overshadowed me a little, perhaps. But it was only Cousin Ellen’s funeral that ever gave me a wakeful night. Cousin Ellen had been moderately old, not very old. She had been a dearly prized friend and crony of mine. Her bound St. Nicholas was one of my delights; and she respected the secrets I told her. She was buried on a bleak, raw, dark, windy, snowy December afternoon. Carl and I went to her funeral. We went coasting afterward. But in the night I woke up, scourged with the sense of the desolation of death. It had less witchcraft now, but more of utter loss, and infinite removal.

I was then about fourteen. As I grew older, I had some nocturnal miseries of remorse for cross or flouting conduct toward my aunts, and in those bad quarters of hours I was helpless before the insupportable thought of their deaths. Their deaths I simply could not bear. I could not live through losing them. I felt prophetically then the simple grievousness of death. Most of its horror had fallen away from if, even that secondary horror of mere grimness, which the weather of Cousin Ellen’s funeral had dramatized. The false face was now pretty well worn through, and one could see the natural countenance of Death, as the supreme author of loneliness, of anguish, the irrevocable Parter.

All these years the scenery of the traditional Heaven had been familiar to me, as to everyone; but along with it, I had been aware, as we all are, of the pious hush in our voices when we spoke of it, the unnatural passive smoothness of our assent to it, the absence of any matter-of-fact assumptions about it, any homely, whimsical detail. And when there was any casual talk of death among the grown-up members of our family and their friends, if I was listening, as I often listened, the impression that I gathered was of a frank ignorance, on their part, of everything to do with ‘the next world.’ They would speculate a little, and repeat the hypothesis of some author they had been reading, but would close their conversation by saying, ‘Well! Nobody knows.’ Especially was this so when I heard my father talking about death — my father, whom we always regarded without awe, as one who, on his visits to Vermont, did nothing else of his own free will but play with us.

Yet in the worn prayer-books of our elders, when we were dusting their bureaus, we used to find old clippings sticking out of the pages, containing poetry about the meeting again in Heaven of those who have been long parted by death. In my father’s prayer-book were always five or six such clippings, describing the meeting, beyond the grave, of parents with lost children.

What little was left of my childhood sense of black magic and foreordination in death was finally cleared away by my brother’s desperate illness when I was seventeen. He seemed at one time to be almost visibly sinking into the grave. When he recovered, a crowd of attenuated old superstitions blew away from me forever. Death remained, though unmasked of all his shadowy trimmings, the stark creator of loneliness, the Parter, the black threat over life. The symbolic skeleton exactly expressed death to me in these years.

And yet there was already sprouting in my mind the sense of death’s possible fascination and magnificence. The courage of those who risk death, the dazzling courage of the martyr, took hold of my imagination as of a musical instrument, and began to trail sounds and echoes round the thought of voluntary death. I shuddered away from it, yet thrilled toward it, and faintly understood the jubilation Latimer is said to have felt before his burning, when he shouted to Master Ridley that they two would light a candle that day in England that would never be putout.

In a period of some youthful sadness of his own, which coincided with a period of sadness in my life also, my brother once inquired,

‘Did you ever think of the possibility of successive lives on earth?'

An instantaneous assent to this theory leaped up in my mind. It seemed to me most comfortingly homelike and natural, and pleasant, too, above all other possibilities. I greatly wished it to be true. I suppose it fulfilled a lifelong need which I had felt, which probably we all feel, for bringing death within range, for domesticating death. Though I was obliged in honesty to admit to myself that there were puzzling difficulties involved in this hypothesis, I rested in it throughout my twenties, as the most congenial notion about death that I had ever had.

People to whom I spoke of it, however, seldom liked the idea. They regarded it as a vast risk, if not an actual punishment, to return to earth again. But would you not like, I asked in wonder, to live your life over again — you, a member of the owning class, whose life, I should think, has surely been very pleasant? Not for worlds! they said. I could not find, among all the people I asked, more than two or three who tolerated the idea.

When death took away, first, the elder of our mothering aunts, and a few years later, our father, I experienced exactly what older friends had long told me I should experience — a feeling of intimacy, a solid sense of acquaintance with death. We who remained had seemed almost to go through the gate, almost for a moment had seemed to shut it behind us, to shut ourselves into the hereafter with the tranquilly, dreamily dying ones whose hands we clasped. For a few weeks we almost seemed to have the key of the gate, almost felt that we had visited them actually in dreams, which utterly laid the ghosts of all imaginable misunderstandings. These intenser dreams often leave a lasting impression. In my own experience the effect of one such dream has remained conclusive for twenty-two years.

Somewhere in his writings, William James speculates whether personal immortality may be achievable rather than inevitable. This notion impressed me very much. I remember several times thinking, ‘Well, perhaps we can have immortality if we want it enough to create it.’ In a book by Henry Holt I was struck by the notion that we perhaps are dipped up from the stream of cosmic being like a dipperful of water, are kept separate for a time, then poured back again. Both these notions, however, I failed to realize emotionally, or otherwise to incorporate them into my life; and in the same way I failed to make any use of Spinoza’s noble conception that we are immortal while we are occupied with immortal values, and only then.

But, during my thirties I began to think of death as a pleasurable adventure. This view I think resulted partly from the fact that my life had been a sort of crescendo, each decade turning out to be happier than the one before it, though all were happy. Then, too, I became a Socialist during this time, and felt to the full the adventurous happiness that such a step involved, when taken by a woman born a Victorian in some of the worst senses of that word. It was natural, accordingly, to think of death as a still more abounding experience; and the mood of two old persons whom I knew endorsed this feeling. Each of them was in the nineties. The granddaughter of one of them said to me afterward, — ‘ You know, my grandmother was a woman of a very pleasant disposition; but when she became very old, and all her old friends died, she was positively disappointed at being left alive. She was actually a little cross about it, like a schoolgirl left out of a picnic.’

The other old Vermonter, when he was eighty-nine, said to me, —

‘ I am sometimes extremely impatient to see what is on the other side of the door.’

And going myself to tea one evening with three other women, one of whom was greatly the senior of the rest of us,

I remember feeling a momentary faint envy of her, as probably destined to enjoy before the rest of us the prime adventure of dying.

I remained for about eight or ten years under this conception of death. It was possibly colored a little by a winter which we spent in Italy during this time, where I, who had never before cared to travel, was especially enthralled by the dark glimmering beauty of the Italian gardens. In a poem which I wrote that year called ‘Death the Adventure,’ it was natural to use the expression: —

Courage! Home is not all; there are houses and gardens elsewhere
Elsewhere gardens, perhaps, more lovely than are the Italian.

In these years I began to practice self-suggestion, at first for an expensive sinus ailment, and then to release my social passions into my verses. Self-suggestion finally brought me into the habit of daily realizing by contemplation such hopes and aspirations as the hope of immortality, and that of social sharing. For a year or two I used to look out the window every night on going to bed, and to conceive of the spirit as going out of the small room of mortal life into the invigorating fresh air of the everlasting life. A cousin of ours died, during the early years of the World War, from a distressing malady; and this use of self-suggestion enabled me to bear the fruitless recollection of her sufferings by dwelling on her approach to immortal health and freedom. Unspeakable refreshment of spirit always resulted from these contemplations; and the sleep which followed them was a revelation of what sleep might be.

My forties have been extraordinarily lucky. They begin to cast forward toward death a shaft of beaming brightness. So full now is my sense of life, that the best of earlier expectations seem pale to me now, as not good enough to be true. Is it because of this satisfaction with earthly life at its pleasantest, that concern for our personal immortality has been fast drifting away? Though I am sure experience has always been the motive of the changes in my thoughts of death, reading too, of course, has influenced them. Masefield’s series of great sonnets on beauty, love, and death has had, for instance, a large, though vague, power over my imagination. Much more clearly I am aware of the effect on me of reading the popular new histories of the world. In these rapid sketches of the whole of terrestrial time, the earth appears (to me for the first time) as a live creature, with strong bents, motives, and creative powers of its own. To read so swiftly the tale of evolution gives me a vivid, confident, warm feeling toward the earth. In its age of reptiles — in its ages, before that, of sterile rock — in its ages, before that, of steaming flame, the earth was conceiving me — conceiving Buddha, and Jesus! In such an earth shall we not confide? And if, at death, our elements scatter again into loam, dew, and rocky salts, how can we, even so, lose a jot or tittle of what we are? How can we lose one fleeting trace of lovability that our friends prize in us?

No energy can ever be lost; then, not our fiery predilections! Electron with loved electron will meet again, for none are lost, and all are evermore moving. Where they meet, there bliss will be; and whether in life of man, or beast, or tree, in ocean or volcano, what matter? In those moods when we long for a shared, a communal life, a life without exclusions, the thought of deeply mingling at death with the life of others presents a lovely face. It seems only an enlargement of the process that all loving sets up, the process of escaping from self into absorption in another’s life. Lovers, parents, saints, all who practise the self-escaping life, who plunge into the vicissitudes of others, forgetting their own, are perpetually bewildered by finding themselves freer, happier, more fully themselves, more blithely alive, than ever. Why may not death, developing this experience, enable us to give and take a warmer than mortal embrace, and prove the moment of keenest pleasure that we have ever known?