My first direct, emotional encounter with death was my childhood dog being put to sleep. She was a cocker spaniel, with a beautiful golden brown coat, big floppy ears that smacked whenever she tried to shake water off, and a stub of a tail that wagged with the ferocity of a much larger one. We called her Missy, except when Mom was angry at her for peeing in the house or similar offenses. Then she was called by her registered name: Lady Melissa Anne. The name was a little pretentious, but she was the only girl my mom had.
As a houseful of four boys, we owned a skateboard (a requirement of 90s kids, really), but we never learned properly to ride it, despite our extreme aptitude at Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. One of the uses of the skateboard, and eventually the only use, was Missy-boarding. The act was simple: get the dog, get the leash, get the skateboard, sit on the board, and pull an Iditarod. Unfortunately for Missy, we did not live in Alaska; we lived in Florida. Missy would come back inside drenched in sweat, overheated, and panting for water. With all the attention, she was happy. But Missy got old. She went blind, mostly deaf, and became incontinent. She was thirteen when Mom and Dad decided that it was time.
I didn’t know until years later that my stoic brother Jon used to let Missy sleep on his bed. She was a tile dog, not even allowed on the carpets, let alone into bedrooms. Jon had a soft spot for Missy, and Missy, quite rightly, had a soft spot for Jon. He was with Mom and Dad when Missy was put down. He cried.
Missy’s death also revealed one of my own unreflective habits. On the day she was put down, I came home from high school and whistled a four-note tune. I realized for the first time that I had whistled every day, and that no matter how deaf or old or tired she was, Missy would always come to greet me at the door. There are still times when I am back in Florida and walking through my parents’ front door that I catch myself beginning to whistle.
The death of a beloved pet is a good introduction to death, insofar as any introduction is good. It teaches that death is nothing. That death for the living is a present absence. Dogs, especially, are full of life; they reflect their owner’s emotions. They can be slobbery or refined, dumb as doornails or more intelligent than their masters, but they are alive and present. When alive, a dog cannot sink into absence unlike other pets or people. So when death claims a dog, we become acquainted with the absence that death is. There are no more little paws, no more stretches and dog-yawns, no more seeking out sunbeams around the house. Those spots become empty. And no one comes when you walk through the door and whistle.
Unfortunately, the death of a dog is just an introduction to death. Life, though, has made me a student of it. I was young and impressionable when 9/11 happened; death made itself felt. Then, the wars were on TV, joined by the earthquakes, tsunamis and epidemics, and as my generation grew up the ripples of those events began to touch us, to draw us into them. Death stalked us. Death continues to stalk us; the consequences of that September day and those wars are still being wrought out, and coming closer.
I live in Brussels, and have since September 2012. When three individuals blew themselves up on March 22, 2016, I was there. That Tuesday, over 30 people died and hundreds were injured. One man I knew was injured getting off the metro. A friend of a Syrian refugee woman I had met, another refugee, was killed in the blasts at the airport. The war and the terror had followed him to Belgium and killed him. This experience of death and these acts of terror were terrible; the city had been building toward this since the Paris attacks in November 2015. We had been collectively holding our breath, expecting something, waiting for the unimaginable. Finally, it happened. Grief mingled with fear and with a strange relief. The feelings were surreal, but the loss wasn’t. People on their way to work never got there. Friends and family members, in the midst of their normal lives, were ripped into an unambiguous absence.
The city has not yet returned to normal. Is there a new normal after an encounter with death? When the metro opened after the attacks, I took it; there were fewer people on it than normal, and everyone was quiet. I will fly out of Brussels Airport this week. What will the memorials look like? Will they make those absent present in some small way? Death lingers in the air, an unwanted guest but present nonetheless. Thoughts arise: my wife used to take that metro to work; friends were on it before and after. So many brushes with death reminds us of how close it is. Always and already. We are beings-unto-death; beings who flirt with death.
I wonder what the room in which the bombs were made was like. There are police photos of it, but in the eyes of the bombers, in the process of making them, what sort of space did it become? Was it a place of tension and stress or exhilaration? What were their conversations about? Was there any worry about being discovered and arrested or killed? Did they keep track of whose turn it was to get the take-out food, or do the laundry? Maybe in it there were arguments about what to do and not do around the TAPT, the volatile chemical compound that comprised the bombs. Don’t fart around the TAPT! Especially you; yours are like bombs on their own. Was death their focus? Did they think of themselves as dead men walking? Did the tension of living, did its presence, give them any pause? What was their faith like? Did they know it was Holy Week? Did they know God was on the way to death as well?
I did not grow up in a historically-minded faith community. Our great heroes of the faith were Jesus, the disciples, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, a few guys who had started or furthered the domination, and C.S. Lewis for whatever reason. Needless to say, Holy Saturday was not a thing. Between Good Friday and Easter, there was a non-day. That is, that Saturday was just another day, a holiday from the services. We were already looking forward to Easter, not really remembering that Jesus was in a tomb, that God was dead. Now I belong to an Anglican church, and Holy Saturday is a non-day, a day of questions and of death.
As I have matured in my faith and lived more life and seen more death, Holy Saturday has become important to me. I am haunted by its questions: How was there space? How was there time? How was there life? Were not these also folded up in the grave clothes of the one in whom they consist? The mystery of the death of God is a mystery we do not like to dwell on.
I cannot explain the death of God, nor can I imagine it. The self-affirming, eternal and dynamic life of God present in Jesus of Nazareth was ended by some Roman soldiers on some hill on some Friday. Everyone takes a final breath; there was a final breath for God. Death is a liminal moment. Everyone faces it, and we cannot face it for another. There have always been questions about what happens in the final moment. Flashes of your life? A surge of chemicals in the brain? A light? A doorway? What would it have been for God? And what would it be for Jesus to be a corpse? Easter has upended any chance one has at directly experiencing it, because one is taken up with Christ into the death of death, into the reaffirmation of life, into the resurrection. Yet that Saturday, that one day in all of time and space; what was it like?
For a time, the Life-Giver was a corpse. The active God, the I AM, was passive, in a passivity beyond passivity, an object devoid of animation. Lifeless. Absent. God, an eternal presence present to the Trinitarian community of God, stepped somehow into our absence, the absence of death. Some theologians create logics and diagrams and flowcharts to explain this mystery. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. But perhaps what is required is a Kierkegaardian leap into the mysterious. It is the absurd beyond the universal. In the mystery of God become man we see reconciliation happening between two irreconcilables: death and life.
Death is the absence of what we think should be present, or of what was present before. The presence of this absence tears at the fabric of our reality. It is as metaphysical as heaven, and as real as dirt covering a coffin. There is a silence to death that can be heard. The dead do not speak to us; the world moves on and does not speak to them; and the habits of our lives, the presence we have to the world, also changes. We stop taking the metro for a while and bury our dead. We grieve and mourn; we move on. The world seeks to correct itself. And yet.
We still mourn and grieve and can bury ourselves with the dead. We can try to resolve the questions of the death of God, but God will still have died. We will still make bombs to kill our neighbors and ourselves. And we will still reach out to help the hurting and to be with the dying. We will get back to living and riding the metro and laughing in public. Death is an absence felt in the presence of life.
And I will still walk through my parents’ door and catch myself starting to whistle.