The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for.
~Vladimir Nabokov from Speak Memory
I think Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend.
At the end they don’t want their hands
to be under the covers, and if you should put
your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture
of solidarity, they’ll pull the hand free;
and you must honor that desire,
and let them pull it free.
~Jane Kenyon from “Reading Aloud to My Father”
And once, for no special reason,
I rode in the back of the pickup, leaning against the cab.
Everything familiar was receding fast…
Whatever I saw
I had already passed…
(This must be what life is like
at the moment of leaving it.)
~Jane Kenyon from “What It’s Like”
The farther I am down the road, everything familiar seems to be receding fast. What I see on my journey, I have already passed by as I watch it disappear into the horizon.
I too often mistake this world, this existence, as the only light there is, a mere beam of illumination in the surrounding night of eternity, the only relief from overwhelming darkness. If we stand looking up from the bottom, we might erroneously assume we are the source of the light, we are all there is.
Yet looking at this world from a different perspective, gazing down into the abyss from above, it is clear the light does not come from below –it is from beyond us.
The newborn and the dying know this. They signal their transition into and out of this world with their hands. An infant holds tightly to whatever their fist finds, grasping and clinging to not be lost to this darkness they have entered. The dying instead loosen their grip on this world, reaching up and picking the air on their climb back to heaven.
We hold babies tightly so they won’t lose their way in the dark. We loosen our grip on the dying to honor their outreach to the light that leads to something greater.
In the intervening years, we struggle in our blindness to climb out of the abyss to see vistas of great beauty and grace as we pass through the shadows of our lives. Only then we acknowledge, with great calm and serenity, where we are headed.
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