This essay initially appeared in the March, 2014 edition of Reality magazine in Ireland.
One of the great boons of our era is the ongoing effort at creating better, clearer and more accurate translations of the Bible. But, sometimes, you just can’t top the King James version.
Consider the 23rd Psalm.
In the New International Version, the fourth verse is translated this way: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
That’s almost — but not quite — identical to the King James translation: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
To my mind, “darkest valley” is pretty bland. Especially when compared to “the valley of the shadow of death.”
I’m no Bible expert, so maybe “darkest valley” is closer to the phrasing in the earliest versions we have of the Psalms. Still, “the valley of the shadow of death” is a much more poetic way of saying it — more poignant. That’s because it goes to the heart of what it means to be alive.
All walking through the valley
After all, we are all walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Life is a journey to death. We may distract ourselves, we may avert our eyes, but, always, at every moment, looming over us is the reality of our coming death.
Recently, I re-read Muriel Spark’s 1958 masterpiece Memento Mori. It’s a novel about a bunch of elderly English people, mostly upper-class Londoners, who begin receiving identical telephone calls.
When they answer, the caller says, “Remember, you must die.” (The title of the book is that sentence in Latin.)
As you’d expect, the calls mystify these men and women. Some react with indignation. Some find the calls amusing. Some are discombobulated.
One member of their circle who doesn’t get a call is Jean Taylor, a former companion-maid of one of the ladies and a former lover of one of the men. At 82, she is in a government nursing home, progressively losing the use of her body to arthritis.
Jean is very aware of her declining health and approaching death. She seems to find consolation meditating on these subjects, and maybe that’s why the caller never bothers with her.
“The last time”
One chapter begins: “Miss Jean Taylor sat in the chair beside her bed. She never knew, when she sat in her chair, if it was the last time she would be able to sit out of bed.”
Our lives are filled with beginnings and endings. A few, like the start of a new year or entering a building to begin a new job, can be seen and planned for. Most, though, just happen. One day, you’re strong enough to sit in a chair. The next, you’re not.
Take the odiferous task of changing diapers.
I can’t recall the last time I changed my daughter’s diaper. No question, it was a long time ago. Sarah’s now 25.
The end of diapering is cause for celebration for any parent. You’d think that, as a society, we’d have a tradition of holding a party when that momentous date is achieved. The thing is, though, that you’re never sure when that last time is reached. Is the child fully, completely, totally potty-trained?
We often don’t realize, can’t foresee, that some aspect of life is about to draw to a close. Only later can you look back and recognize “Oh, that was the last time I played softball,” or “That’s the last email I got from George.”
Change, of course, is part of life. Starts and finishes. Birth and death.
My career as a newspaper reporter may be over, but I’ve visited Paris for the first time. George is gone, but I have a host of new nieces and nephews.
Those new starts are exciting. The endings are often bittersweet — or just plain bitter. Maybe that’s why, as humans, we tend to look back at parts of our lives that have come to an end. And, like Jean Taylor, to look ahead to try to spot the endings before they arrive.
When Jean Taylor wonders if she is sitting in a chair for the last time, her thoughts help her recognize the ephemeral nature of life. It makes her more aware of the chair and her body.
She is living in the moment because she is not taking for granted that she will always be able to sit in that chair.
When I changed the diapers on my son and daughter, I was very aware of the yucky-ness of the task. Often, though, there was a playful aspect to the chore. David or Sarah would smile, giggle, babble. I’m sure I’m not the only parent who, in this situation, took the opportunity to tickle the sole of my child’s foot, or played eeny-meeny-miny-moe with those tiny toes.
In the moment
We were deeply in the moment. (Kids are always in the moment.) That’s what I remember of those many times, the closeness that I shared with my son and daughter in carrying out such an intimate task. Not the ick factor.
Did I ever look to the future and realize that this diapering — this unique interaction with my child — would someday end?
Yeah, I think any parent who’s paying attention knows that this ten-month-old will soon be a toddler who will soon enough be talking your ear off and, eventually, heading off to college.
It’s worthwhile, at least on occasion, to recognize that there’s no guarantee that my favorite basketball player this season will still be playing next season, or that the friend I see at church on Sunday will be there the next week. Or that I will see another Christmas.
Recognizing the fleetingness of existence and living in the moment enriches our experience.
And, as with diapering, helps us put up with life’s yucky-ness.
Patrick T. Reardon