Prior to my conversion, I considered death definitely not okay. Not that I feared death. I did not, and the older I became and the more full my life became, for full, indeed, it did become, the less I gave death any thought at all. When one has led a life rich in experiences of all sorts, one does not experience a desperate attempt to cling to life in order to get everything in that one wants to do. I have, as you might have guessed, no bucket list. I am grateful for the experiences I have had, and they are sufficient. Whatever ones are to come will also be sufficient. So, death is no threat. Still, death is not something that ever seemed okay. Ill people, children with birth defects, perfectly healthy people getting in accidents – all these life endings were, in my mind, simply not okay.
Not that I did not defy death. I did. I was a risk-taker par excellence. (I still am, but these days I am perhaps a little more judicious about choosing the cliffs off which I take a flying leap with but a prayer and half-a parachute for protection.) As a child, I climbed apple trees (in a skirt, no less, since girls were not allowed to wear pants in those days in rural New England), taunted and pummeled boys who quickly learned that I was tomboy eager and ready to grow up on the boys’ side of the playground, and took on the causes of the underdog, whatever that required – words, fists, or a helping hand.
As a teenager, I fought back at home. Fighting to stay alive would not be an understatement when parental physical abuse threatened to main or kill my siblings and me and when sexual abuse threatened to murder trust and free spirit.
I continued to take on underdog causes with enthusiasm. I remember, for example, the English teacher, Mrs. D., who gave boys who played sports lower grades than other students for the same level of effort and scholarship. I rallied to their cause, conspiring to put an end to this favoritism with the help of Bobby, captain of the football and basketball teams and my pal and scrapping partner since toddler days. (In fact, the story of how I flattened Bobby into the sidewalk when we were both two years ago because I had shared my ice cream but he would not subsequently share his candy bar is still told with great gusto by the older residents of the neighborhood where we both grew up.) Toward the end of our junior year, Bobby, one of the tallest boys in our class, sat right behind me, one of the shortest girls, seats of our own choosing at the beginning of the school year. That made it easy for Bobby to see my answers on tests if I did not cover them up, but Bobby never cheated. Not until the day that we hatched the grand plan for entrapping Mrs. D. in a web of favoritism.
Our plan came to fruition on the day of our next major test. We were both prepared for the test. I know that Bobby was as prepared as I was because I prepared him. Always an A student in English, my help was enlisted by many other students, including nearly all members of the football and basketball teams. I would check their homework and quiz them before class. We were always more or less equally ready, but the ball-playing boys would get a D and I would get an A on the same test. Mrs. D considered “jocks” dumb. We all knew that. Bobby and I were convinced that her attitude, not our relative levels of knowledge, was the essential reason for the difference in our grades, and we set out to prove it. Mrs. D handed out the papers, and we all proceeded to answer the questions. Bobby, looking over my shoulder, easily ensured that his answers matched mine. On the one essay question, he changed a few words, replacing some of my words with synonyms but essentially keeping the content. We finished at the same time, of course, but I walked up first and placed my paper on Mrs. D’s desk so that it ultimately was much lower in the stack than Bobby’s. That way, the likeness between our answers would not be obvious. Sure enough, Bobby got a D, and I got an A. We carefully compared our answers and found no essential differences. After class, we hurried down to the principal’s office, gloating about how effectively we had trapped Mrs. D. Then the enormity of what we had really done hit me. With my hand on the knob, I turned to Bobby and said, “we cheated.” He immediately realized that, depending upon the principal’s whim, we might be the ones punished, not her. (In those days in rural New England, children, especially teens, were always wrong; that probably explains as well as anything else how my parents could get away with sending their eight children to school day after day with marks all over their bodies from physical abuse.) And so our grand plan had petered-out ending. We did not go into the office, nor did we confront Mrs. D. (Obviously, there was a limit to my risk-taking.) I did, though, talk to Bobby’s mother and also to the mother of Jimmy, another friend who captained the basketball team after Bobby and I graduated. I begged them not to punish their sons for bad grades because the teacher was unfair to them. I don’t know whether they ever believed me; they never checked out my opinion, and Bobby and I made a pact never to tell the story, and we were well into our 40s before I ever did.
After high school and college, I joined the U. S. Army, another risk-taking step. For the next eight years, I spent my time jumping into and out of helicopters, firing submachine guns (although given my small size, they often fired me, whumping me up and down on the ground from reverberation), and learning combat maneuvers. At one point, I was one of only two women in the United States assigned to combat intelligence, and I was the only enlisted woman to stand a commissioning board in maternity clothes, becoming the first pregnant officer. (It is small claims to fame that I have garnered through my risk-taking, nothing of any great glory, but nonetheless I consider them personal triumphs of some sort.)
After my Army stint, I took on more sedate employment: university professor, and my rough-and-tumble activities moved into the household. It was I, not Donnie, who taught our boys to wrestle. Finding a mother rolling around on the floor with her elementary-school sons in a contest of who could pin whom first would probably have flabbergasted traditional parents and even likely traditional psychologists. (Fortunately, I had friends who became psychologists, and they seemed to think that we were a well-functioning, highly bonded family in spite of my quirks. That is indeed one of the many miracles with which God has spoiled me.) My more traditional role, though, did not change my view of death. I did not fear it, and I did not worry about not having completed what I wanted to do with life. I accepted death as an ending to life and nothing more. But still it was definitely not okay. I much preferred to live, thank you.
Post-conversion, I find that I look upon death quite differently, still with no fear but, and, this astounds me at times, with a growing sense that death is okay. I define death differently now, too. I view it not simply as an ending but as the end of a specific state, which is a fear-free thought (at least, for me).
I realized the deep change in my attitude while reading Abandonment to Divine Providence (Jean-Pierre de Caussade). De Caussade writes, “Your will is enough, and I am willing to live and die as it decrees.” I recognized with some surprise my own post-conversion sentiments in de Caussade’s words. I am not only willing, but happy, to live and die as God wishes. I have found that willingness to be freeing. I no longer need to fight. Those struggles for survival are comfortably in the past now. I now say simply, “God, You choose for me, and I will be pleased with the choice.” Yes, death is okay if it is God’s choice. How liberating!
Our Lady of Fatima [Flickr]
21 hours ago