"Life," John Lennon once quipped, "is what happens while you're busy making plans." I had the truth of that witticism driven somberly home for me this holiday when, in the midst of revelry and blog-planning, I learned that my father has died.
Everyone puts their grief into a context. Here is mine. It's a eulogy that should have been given at my Dad's funeral, but that I hadn't thought through clearly at the time:
"I have not come to mourn, but to celebrate. My Dad has not simply died, nor has he 'passed away.' He has become my ancestor, and that is a wondrous thing to be.
Of course, I am deeply saddened by his death. It will be a long time before I can reconcile myself to a world without his consciousness in it. But my sadness is tempered by the knowledge that death is not a curse, a punishment or a negative. It is not something that's wrong with the universe. It's a natural thing, and yet much more profound than that.
Death, much more than life, is the root source of the universe's strength and diversity. Much more than life, it shapes us and molds us into who we are. Death is something to be honored.
Every one of us here today, and every other person who's ever lived -- indeed, every being that has ever lived, and every rock and every river and every star and planet and every drop of water in the universe today -- is made of elements forged in hearts of dying stars. The oxygen in our lungs, the calcium in our bones, the carbon in our DNA: all of them are the 13-billion-year-old offspring of stars that died in gargantuan explosions and scattered their mass across the universe. We are star-stuff, and without the deaths of the first generation of stars, nothing else could exist anywhere.
Mountains die, too. Over millions of years, they erode down to bedrock, their sediments blending with the detritus of dead organisms to become life-giving soil.
And in that soil are nurtured the mightiest trees, held tall and strong by their dead parts: bark and wood.
When we were just a ball of cells in the womb, our ability to grow heads and hands and arms and legs depended on certain fetal cells dying at the right time, in the right way. Without that programmed cell death, we -- and all other life -- would remain just balls of cells, forever.
When our brains are developing, millions of neuron cells die and get replaced by new synaptic pathways. Without that neuron death, we'd be unable to think, or feel.
And then there's cancer, which has become for many of us the very symbol of death's ravages. Yet, cancer is actually caused by the absence of death. When certain cells fail to die, they become cysts and tumors that ravage their neighbors, sucking up resources and refusing to die. Within our bodies, death is the enemy of cancer.
Knowing all this, I cannot be someone who sees death as a curse. Know all this, I have come to see death as a creative force at all levels of existence, from the most ancient of stars to the tiniest of cells. Death, to me, is a sacred thing, as sacred as life. Death makes life strong. Death is holy.
I have my Dad to thank for this insight. It was he who sat me down to watch Carl Sagan's Cosmos every week when I was a kid. That's where I first learned that I am star-stuff, and the lesson stuck with me.
That is why I have come to honor Dad's death, not mourn it. For Dad has joined the ranks of the stars and the mountains and the countless species who died before him, who recycled their essence into the life we have today. He has become an ancestor, and that is the most honorable accomplishment of all.
Why should I mourn that?