Staring Down the Sting of Death (translated from Helen’s Chinese)

The following is something Helen posted on her blog the weekend after MH 370 disappeared. Her article was picked up and republished by several Chinese publications, and proceeded to go viral, even reaching — and comforting — some of the people bereaved by the disappearing Malaysian Airlines flight (we know this because one of them has written Helen to thank her). At least three people she hasn’t heard from since college got in touch with her after having the article forwarded to them, including one who is a devout Buddhist and read the article upon the enthusiastic recommendation of the spiritual leader of the biggest Buddhist temple in Shanghai. The original article (which, being in her original Mandarin, is infinitely better than my translation) is here: http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_53cecf5f0101s3q4.html

I sent this out to a few friends, by the way, and Helen was horrified by my mentioning how widely the article is being read, as she thought it was obvious that I was bragging on her. That is good; I would hate to think that any of you had missed my point.  ;-)

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STARING DOWN THE STING OF DEATH

This weekend, I seem destined to thinking and talking about death. And since I can’t seem to avoid it, I might as well just throw myself into it wholeheartedly.

A few days ago I had started thinking about where to take my son for our spring break getaway this year, but on Friday some news came without warning: my husband’s Aunt Sue had died, and the funeral was scheduled for Sunday. Although I had never met her, for my husband’s sake we needed to go to the funeral. My heart gave a tiny whisper, “Our whole vacation is messed up.”

Who would have thought that the same day, the evening of March 7 in the U.S., the news would break that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was lost. Later, I learned a new word 失联,  “lose contact.” So, as far as our travel plans being messed up…so what? An airplane filled my heart, those 239 lives, and the thousands of families associated with them. While I packed my luggage, I imagined them happily getting dressed for the trip, in high spirits about getting back home to their wives, laying out in order the presents bought for loved ones back home, imagining their excitement when the gifts are opened … However, some luggage never reaches its final destination; some who leave on a journey will never return.

The funeral was held in a small town called Athens, Texas. The whole trip there it rained in a steady drizzle; the grey skies matched my mood as I thought about this bleak affair. Although it was March, spring seemed a long way off. The sky was grey like a canvas, every tree was bare, it was like a picture in Chinese ink. Trees, they have their cycle. In the midst of winter’s bleak desolation, you do not despair, because the heart is already looking forward to spring. Spring’s blossoms, spring’s aromas, spring’s flirtatiousness, “spring” — this single word represents exuberant vitality and power … … but what about people? When they look ahead all the way to the end of life, how many people can feel hope? For they have no idea what to expect. Death, like a deep pool, like a wall, like a black jungle, fathomless, pitch-black and sinister, wrapped up in humanity’s ultimate fear, the utter denial of everything beautiful and warm. All because we don’t know the bottom of that abyss, the far side of that wall, what it is that awaits humanity. Heaven? Hell? Nothingness? Reincarnation? The bare trees will meet the spring, the earth will warm back up, people… they disappear from this world, and what then? At the end of all things, they will…what??

Even while my mind was running wild with these thoughts, I never stopped looking at websites, microblogs, WeChat… — expecting news of a miracle. “Not sure…suspected…possible … …” In the end I grew disenchanted with advanced science and technology; humanity is so limited! When we arrived at the funeral home where they had placed Sue’s body, I put away my moodiness, and before we went in I told my son not to laugh, lest people think we didn’t respect the deceased. We walked through the door, and unexpectedly we were surrounded by smiling faces. In the hall itself gentle, relaxing music was playing; an ivory casket was placed in the forefront, studded with pink powder-blue flowers. Up on the wall to the right a slideshow was playing, photographs of Sue from childhood to old age. She was in her seventies, and naturally time had left its mark. Friends and relatives wandered hither and thither at will, chatting, now and then going up to look at Sue in her coffin, or perhaps turning to look at the photographs projected onto the wall. The old people talked to the young, explaining the stories behind the photographs, relating amusing anecdotes about Sue. Now and then there would be some tears in the eyes, but then they would not be able to keep back a smile … … Music without pathos, no heart-rending lung-ripping weeping and wailing — is this a funeral??

I couldn’t help but ask my husband, “Didn’t they love her? Didn’t they really care about her? How can there be so little crying?” My husband patted my shoulder and leaned over to whisper to me, “It’s a small town and almost everyone is a Christian, and we are all sure that Sue, who we know loved God, went to Heaven; so her death is no reason for grief. Of course there will still be some tears, because her loved ones who are still alive will miss her. However, there will be a day in Heaven when we will meet again face to face, and so for the time being we can bear it.” His voice was soft but firm. It turns out that generations of faith have planted hope in their hearts: the bare trees wait in expectation for the spring, they wait in expectation of seeing each other again in Heaven. So, looking at the beloved one in the coffin, their minds are filled with warm memories and beautiful hope; Despair and Fear, begone, you have no place here.

Sunday’s funeral was just as peaceful. Now and then there was a sob, and a comforting hug. Sorrow floated in the air, but very shallow, not terrifying, not unbearable, not suffocating. My own childhood fear of death sprang directly from my grandmother’s funeral. The ceaseless wails of grief, the sight of desperate relatives hurling themselves on the coffin trying to drag it back as it was being pushed into the furnace, left me with a single impression of death: when one person dies, it’s as if the sky falls for the whole family. That sort of despair and sorrow is far too heavy for a young little heart to bear.

After the ceremony in the chapel, everyone went to the cemetery to bid farewell. Just as my husband had told me, the friends and relatives drove in a long, slow-moving line, each car with its lights on, and the vehicles that met us coming the other direction, large trucks and tiny passenger cars alike, all stopped as we passed. Our passing in the opposite direction wouldn’t in reality affect them at all, yet they were willing to dedicate this brief moment in time to a show of respect for the death of someone they didn’t even know. My heart was moved to its core with warmth a few times. When all the living show such respect even toward the dead, the people of this country must have such bedrock happiness. My husband said that years ago people would get out of their cars and stand with their hats off to show respect for the dead. I said, what they are doing now is already more than enough. As I said that, in my mind was Sue and her blue dress, her face with its light makeup and its serenity, the trace of a smile on her lips, her hands folded, her left hand still wearing her wedding ring, a delicate watch hanging loosely on her right wrist — looking exactly like someone going to keep an appointment, going to meet friends long missed…

That night in the hotel, I kept waking up all night long. Each time I would grab my cell phone, get on the internet and check the news. Every dream was of an airplane, the sky, the sea. Even though I know that God has prepared Heaven for His children, fear and anxiety still held their ground. “Whereabouts unknown…” all the terrors conjured up by such words seem more frightening even than death itself. On the road home, all of a sudden I reached over and turned off my husband’s music and asked him, “It’s been more than fifty hours with no news, with everyone praying for their safe return. I don’t know what to think; how in the end am I supposed to pray for them?” Even before he answered, the image of Sue’s funeral rose back up in my mind, and it seemed to hold an answer: I would pray for those heart-stricken family members to find true hope in the midst of their despair; pray that under the blow of knowing that their loved ones might already have passed away, they could arrive at a true perspective on their own lives, that they might no longer fight desperately to cling to wealth and power, but instead would treasure every moment spent with those around them, would leave behind in others’ lives love and respect and kindness……

At that moment I got a message on WeChat: a friend had just passed away in Chicago from illness, on the eighth of March at two o’clock in the morning. In our last phone conversation, she had said that she missed Houston and wanted to come back and be together again. But death came so unexpectedly, there was not even time to say good-bye. I said to myself, “This weekend is destined to be about death.”

“To be born, to get old, to get sick, to die” — everyone in China knows this traditional summary of mankind’s fate. But apparently getting old and getting sick are not inevitable, for catastrophe strikes down some infants, while there are people who live to a ripe old age and die in their beds without ever getting sick. Only death makes everyone in the whole world equal, only death is the ultimate inevitability. So, with regard to this subject, shouldn’t we spend more time exploring and understanding death than we do on other things that may not even happen? Work, marriage, hobbies — these things make up an important part of life, and each of them has to be studied and prepared for. Death should also be thought of as a course of study, should be researched, pondered, discussed. Unthinking taboos and silence, they only feed the dread, isn’t it so? Whatever lives, has already been stung by death. When the veil of the unknown is even slightly lifted, the looming terror of death recedes; even if it does not disappear completely, let people at least have the courage to face it.

When it comes to what is said about death, the most straightforward words, the ones that most have comforted my heart, are from the Bible. Sue’s funeral let me glimpse even more how, in this particular actual death, Christian faith produced serenity, peace and hope. Her body unexpectedly didn’t give me the slightest feeling of icy cold. It could not have been more different from the scenes of death in my memories.

About death, the Bible says: “all humanity will die together, and mankind will return to the dust.” “Death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” It tells us that death is inevitable, which we already know, but it also tells us that we should think about death while we are still alive.

The Christian faith is not afraid to talk about death — because Jesus’ “death and resurrection” is the cornerstone of the whole religion. Never in history was there anyone else as humble as Jesus, to give up His life for the whole world, and yet with His resurrection to defeat death itself; and never was there anyone like Jesus to firmly declare Himself to be the way, the truth and the life. He said: “I am the resurrection, I am the life! Whoever believes in Me, even if he dies, yet will he surely live again.” And that means that death is no longer the end of the story.

Maybe the closer we draw near to the place of death’s poisonous sting, the more clearly we can see the need for faith. In order to live calmly and undauntedly, we need to find it, experience it – that faith that destroys dark horror, that brings hope and freedom and love. I am deeply convinced that only the flower of a life lived free from the fear of death, can make every moment in life bloom without limit, spreading its beauty throughout the world.

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