“I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world”
Mary Oliver’s poem ‘When Death Comes’ is her most famous for a reason: It resonates with everyone.
When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn; when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; when death comes like the measle-pox; when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades, I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, and I look upon time as no more than an idea, and I consider eternity as another possibility, and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular, and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, tending, as all music does, toward silence, and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth. When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it's over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
I’m at an age when posterity is on my mind. Who am I? What part of me would I leave if I left today? How would the people I care about remember me? (I don’t care about those others.)
When my husband died last week the outpouring of love was astonishing, given what a quiet, unassuming man he was. He touched so many simply by being kind, by being generous with his attention. I don’t remember him ever interrupting someone in order to get his own opinion in.
I remember many times when I’ve done that.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t opinionated. He was. So am I. Luckily our opinions mostly meshed and whatever yelling we did from our armchairs we did in unison: Down with fascism! Open your eyes! What the hell?? Get those guys!
I’m going to miss that. We disagreed often on leaders, on tactics, on lost opportunities, but when we agreed it was always on the side of prevailing goodness. We worked for and wanted peace. We wanted the 21st Century to be the century when the world finally got it together and recognized how foolish and deadly most conflict is, how terrible and self-serving demagoguery is, how much better off we would be if we all grew up and learned to get along.
It didn’t happen. It looks like it won’t happen. So can I stop now, now that he’s gone, now that my own days are dwindling and peace should be my personal goal and not a quest to save the world?
Because I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world. I want to spend my days in wonderment, in awe of what we’ve been and what we can be. I want never to stop seeing the good, the beautiful, the amazing. At the same time, I want never to turn my back on the hurt, the pain, the tragedy brought on by the evils we can never stop fighting against.
The world is a real place. If I could write it the way I want it to be I could relax and enjoy it, knowing everyone could relax and enjoy it.
So this is my way of saying I’ll be back, business as usual, some time next week. I’ll be traveling back to Michigan this weekend, driving with my daughter across the southern states, through Kentucky and across the entire length of Ohio, south to north, and finally into our home state, where a cold front threatens to freeze my thinned blood. But that’s where I need to be right now, and where I’ll thrive best.
I want to thank you for your support and your concern. I’ll be fine. I won’t ever be the same but I’ll be fine. There are others so much worse off than I am and I can’t stop thinking about them.
(Cross-posted at my other newsletter, Constant Commoner)
Writer Everlasting is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.