Category Archives: Dying

Don’t Put Off Until Tomorrow

Or it might be too late.

2015-02-18 15.50.45-1Note:  This post was written in 2015, but remained unpublished until 2018.

We all do it at some time. I am as guilty as anyone else, for putting things off to do later. I expect we all use the same excuses too; Another day won’t matter. I’m too busy just now, he/she always asks for it before it’s needed anyway. I’ve used all those at one time or another, and probably a host of others too that I cannot remember. I think that, more often than not, putting something off is really just a matter of procrastination, or plain laziness.

While only time will tell if I am cured of this laziness, at least for the foreseeable future I will not be putting of until later actions or jobs I can undertake today. And the reason? Simple. An incredibly graphic, distressing example of what can happen.

My online friend of more than 6 years, a wonderful, kind, caring and warm lady, started to suffer pains that made it hard for her to walk and move around; she could still sit in relative comfort. Later, in October, she had a series of medical investigations and in early November was informed that she had an inoperable, cancerous tumour. She was offered chemotherapy and radiotherapy but declined any aggressive treatment, opting only for pain relief. Her prognosis was to expect approximately 12 months before the condition was terminal.

I decided I would try to visit her. She lived in The Netherlands but this did not matter, I had plenty of time to make arrangements and occasionally visited Maastricht for concerts. I could call in on her way back to the ferry at Hoek-van-Holland. Even if I took a pessimistic view, I reckoned I would have  six months leeway to arrange a visit.

On the 6th January 2015, when I logged into our online meeting she was not there. Instead there was a message from her sister, saying that my friend had been taken into hospital. The next day a further message informed me that she was in a coma and not expected to survive. The following day …. well, you can work it out.

My friend had survived only two months from her diagnosis, not the year projected by the doctors, or even my pessimistic guess of six months. I did not see her before her death, all because I put off taking the appropriate action until ‘tomorrow’.

Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for thou knowest
not what a day may bring forth – Proverbs 27:1 

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Poppies

Lest we forget.

These hand made poppies are each added to the memorial on the anniversary of the death of the serviceman they commemorate.

Poppy day, more correctly Remembrance Day seems to cause some controversy these days. Most recently I saw that someone had said they thought it was glorifying war. What poppycock.

Maybe I should say before continuing that I was born after World War 2. Like the great majority of people today, I have no direct experience of war beyond news reports so also like them I will probably never understand it’s full horrors and sacrifices.

My father was a conscripted soldier who served in Burmah in WW2. He was not killed or injured but he never spoke of his wartime experiences to anyone I know of, in or outside our family.

I choose to wear a poppy though many will not, that is their choice. I wish they would wear a poppy. I will not run them down, argue with or insult them for not doing so. Nor do I expect someone who does not wear a poppy to lambast me for wearing one.

We live in a free country, where we can choose to wear or not the poppy, freedom fought for by the men for whom the poppy is worn. The Independent newspaper asked “when does the time come to shift the emphasis away from the past and into the present? My answer is that the poppy is the present.

What kind of country would we be living in if we had lost those terrible wars? We almost certainly would not have the freedom we enjoy now. We are not just remembering the dead. We are remembering what they did for us, why they gave their lives to give us a free country to be proud of. Suppose Hitler had won the war. Imagine the kind of regime  we could be living under now.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

From Laurence Binyon’s poem, For The Fallen. These lines form the fourth verse, though apparently they were the first to be written.

The Descent From The Cross

Thoughts on the painting by Peter Paul Rubens.

Descent From The Cross by Rubens 1612-1614

Reubens created The Descent From The Cross between 1612 to 1614, as the central panel of a triptych, where it can still be seen in it’s original location the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium.

One of the first things that struck me is that all of the figures in Rubens’ picture are fair skinned. It is highly unlikely that this would have been the case, though the two men, I take to be Joseph of Arimathea’s servants, leaning over the cross bar to Lower Christ’s body, do have that swarthy outdoor look about them.

The next thing that caught my attention is the colour of John’s clothing; red the colour of blood. The robe is very close in colour the the blood on Christ’s body, but this in itself I think is the wrong colour. Blood turns darker, almost brown as it dries.

All the characters in Rubens’ picture appear in one of the gospels, though not all in the same gospel. Nicodemus presence in this scene is only recorded in the gospel of John.

Another aspect of the picture that caught my attention is the title, The Descent From The Cross. Particularly the use of “Descent”.

Descent usually means to move down, fall or drop. What we see in Rubens’ picture is not just descent by moving down, but being taken down, or lowered. A physical act by a group of Jesus’ friends, family and followers, not of his own action.

If we think again of descent in a spiritual, instead of physical sense, it might have a different, allegorical meaning. The Apostles Creed tells us that:

He descended to the dead. (In some versions hell, instead of dead)
On the third day He rose again.

So it is possible that the title was a deliberate choice of words, to indicate that the picture is not solely depicting the physical act of taking Jesus down from he cross, so that he could be entombed.

The Final Justice

Here in the UK, everyone accused of of a crime is entitled to a trial by jury. The jury consisting of 12 people. In my limited knowledge of the American system, there are also 12 jurors for criminal trials, but may be less for civil proceedings.

It seems to me that the biggest single difference in our justice systems is that (at the time of writing) 31 states have the death penalty available as a lawful punishment. There is no death penalty in the United Kingdom.

From this BBC news report (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-39535957), I discovered that it is a requirement for executions in America that “the law requires people with no connection to the crime attend each execution.” and that volunteers “are considered public eyewitnesses, and go to executions standing in the place of the general public,”

Sitting on a jury, if eligible, is every citizen’s responsibility in both countries, when required to do so in pursuit of justice in a free and democratic country. So, in countries like USA where the death penalty can be passed on a guilty criminal, why isn’t witnessing the ultimate punishment also a civic duty?

In a country/state where execution is a legal punishment, it seems to me reasonable that anyone who can be called upon for jury service, should also be able to be called to witness punishment where that is the death penalty? Obviously, not someone who was a juror at the trial of someone sentenced to execution.

If anyone who can be selected for jury service is also eligible to be selected to watch taking life by execution, I wonder how it might change public perception of having the death penalty?

Interview With Mary Magdalene

Christ and Mary Magdalene by Rembrandt

Something a little different from me, so I hope you like the audio post that follows this introduction.

As with all my posts, the script is entirely by me. With thanks to my friend Jenny, who provided the voice of Mary Magdalene in the recording.

I present a fictional news interview with Mary Magdalene, set outside Jerusalem on what is now Easter Sunday.

 

Fairy Tales 9: The Story Of A Mother

A reflection on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson.

Introduction

Illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen

Illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen

The Story Of A Mother is described as one of Hans Christian Anderson’s New Fairy Tales, though it is notable that HCA himself calls it a story. It is quite adult oriented, with elements that children would have trouble comprehending, and some adults might struggle with. It deals with a child’s death and its mother’s desperate response to the tragic event. In the natural order of life, a mother does not outlive her child.

Hans casts Death not just as the loss of life but as a character, in a way that might help comprehension by young minds. This plot device has been used by later authors such as Terry Pratchett, in a few of his comic Discworld tales, and Markus Zusak in The Book Thief, where Death is not just a story character but in fact the narrator.

When The Story Of A Mother was written, child mortality was much higher than today, nevertheless any mother will suffer intense emotional pain if her child dies before her, both when it was written in 1847 and now.

The Character of Death

To readers today, The Story Of A Mother is set in the past, but to readers of the author’s time it would not be so clear when it is set, though it is equally relevant now as when it was written. Neither are we given any location for the story, which could be nearly anywhere. The only clue is the frozen bush with icicles hanging from it, suggesting we are well north or south of the equator, though as we don’t know the time of year, it might be winter.

The aspect of time is further thrown into doubt when the clock stops after Death, as the old man who the mother does not recognise as Death when she first meets him, takes the child while the mother has fallen asleep for a beirf moment. It is only when she rushes out of her house in search of her child, and encounters the “woman in black garments” who says “Death has been with you in your room” that she knows who the old man was.

The stopping of the clock might signify the death of the child, the tick having represented the heartbeat. I prefer to think of the stopping of the clock as the suspension of time for the mother, like ‘time stands still’ for her until the point in the story, when she begins to grieve for her child, instead of her desperate attempt to get it back.

This aspect of time stopping is reinforced later when death encounters the mother in his “hothouse”, and asks “How have you been able to come quicker than I?” The mothers answer is brief, direct and would be understood by any mother. She replies simply “I am a mother”. This simple powerful statement explains the trials the mother bears and the challenges she overcomes, including the literal ‘crying her eyes out’, making herself blind, to get to Death’s hothouse whilst attempting to rescue her child.

As well as the ambiguity of setting of location and time, the characters we meet are all somewhat ambiguous too. None of the characters, except Death and God are named. We do not even know the gender of the child. Even God as referred to in the story could be a god of many religions, not necessarily Christian, though HCA was himself a Christian in more than name. These ambiguities in the story tends to make race, creed, colour and culture irrelevant and the underlying message equally appropriate to almost anyone. Any mother would be deeply wounded by her child’s death. The age of this story does not make it less relevant or powerful today, whenever “today” might be for the reader.

We are told by HCA that Death acted only on God’s will, yet the Death we meet seems to have a mind of his own, and that he apparently had some feelings for his ‘victims’. Whilst God instructs Death what to do, Death says to the mother “I do only what he commands”, it seems Death was allowed to use his own initiative how to accomplish the tasks he is given. But should we believe Death’s statement, when we see later that he lies to the mother?

It is apparent that Death is not without some degree of feeling or emotion and at least some degree of curiosity. He fished the mother’s eyes from the lake and, when returning them to her, said “they gleamed quite brightly”. If he were emotionless like death is more usually imagined, the gleam would have meant nothing to him. He might have taken a moment’s passing interest in the eyes but would have felt no need to fish them out of the water.

Death’s feelings are also shown when the mother threatens to “tear off all your flowers, for I am in despair”. Were he unfeeling, he could just have frozen her hands again with his cold breath and taken the flowers from her. Instead, he plays on her emotions, pointing out that what she has threatened would make another mother just as unhappy as she is. It is necessary for Death to feel and understand emotion himself, to be confident that his words would have the desired effect on the despairing mother.

For all that Death demonstrates some feeling, he is not beyond practicing some deception even though he is God’s servant. After returning the mother’s eyes to her, Death shows her the fate of two flowers, the two she had been holding and threatening to uproot in herb desperate attempt to get her son back. He tells her that one of the fates she sees is that of her son, but this is a lie. The lie misleads the mother but in doing so allows her to accept the demise of her son, and so begin grieving for him, instead of the desperate, hopeless quest to recover him. At this point when, if the mother returned home, she would wind the stopped clock, re-starting it as time re-starts for her with the acceptance of the inevitable.

It is interesting that Death’s character is shown as a gardener. However in modern terms he might be better described as a nurseryman, who only cares for the tender seedlings and young plants until they are ready to be planted outside of the greenhouse, or “hothouse” as in the story, into a garden. The Catholic church believes in an intermediate state after physical death, called purgatory, thought to be a time of purification for those who will ultimately ascend to heaven. With Death as a nurseryman tending the young plants, I suggest that it is analogous to purgatory. Death looks after the young plants until they have grown sufficiently mature and strong to no longer need the protection of his greenhouse, and can be ‘planted out’ in God’s ‘garden’.

Another facet of Death is his curiosity, that shows up in his response to the mother’s plea “Let my child be free from all that misery”, and “Forget my tears”, when he says “I do not understand you”. If he were simply a dumb servant, he would not need or want to understand the mother’s reaction, he would simply carry out his master’s instructions. Since we know he is serving God’s will, we might think of Death not as an antagonist, in fairy tale terms, but as a helper.

Prima facie Death’s actions and treatment of the mother might appear callous, like the antagonist type character as seen in other tales, though he is perhaps not, as I have shown, unfeeling. He is not however an antagonist in the classic sense. Death has no animosity toward the mother or for the child, he is simply carrying out God’s will.

Death might even be seen as a helper to the mother. He returns her eyes, restoring her sight, and helps her to resume her life when she finally accepts the death of her beloved child and begins to grieve.

Conclusion.

The Story Of A Mother presents two universal themes that can be understood in any culture, the death of a child and the lengths that a mother’s love will drive her to for the sake of her child, sometimes taking desperate measures to her own detriment, We find a third lower theme coming in toward the end when the mother finally accepts the inevitability of her situation and begins to grieve for her child.

Most readers would probably assume that the god referred to is the Christian God. There is no explicit statement to this effect, letting a reader to interpret the tale in relation to their own deity.