Recently, a friend was in an accident. It was one of those situations where a split second was the difference between serious injury or death, and a painful, but remediable, injury. Luckily, the timing went the latter direction. She’s injured, but she’ll be back to normal at more or less the moment she gets used to her new normal.
I went to see her a couple of days after the accident, to bring by some food and to verify for my own peace of mind that she was okay. As we were talking, she described the moment before the impact: “I realized what was about to happen, but I couldn’t stop it, and I remember thinking, I am prepared for my own death, but I didn’t plan on it being today.” She paused and thought another moment. “I don’t fear my own death, but I’m glad it didn’t happen just then.”
I was so shocked by the force of the thought that slammed into my head, hearing her say that, that I couldn’t even express it: You might be prepared for your own death, but I’m not! When I had heard about the accident and how close a call it had been, I felt ill at the thought, but hearing her proclaim, confidently, that she was prepared for that moment made me realize how unprepared I am.
To be clear, I don’t mean that I’m unprepared for my own death. I might not have my friend’s carefully considered confidence around it, but I have seen enough of the transformations life contains to feel unafraid, at least. No, it’s the deaths of other people that I’m not ready for.
JC was in a car accident yesterday. Like my friend’s, his situation was one that he’s lucky to have walked–actually, driven–away from. His car hydroplaned on the interstate, and he spun out into the median. He says the car did two full revolutions, and I believe it. It’s in rough shape, but fixable (and, lucky us, it was the one that we have decent insurance on). He’s totally uninjured. I don’t understand how it is possible. This was during the morning commute, the road packed with cars. I like everything about his job besides the fact that it requires him to spend so much time on the highway, which is a poorly designed death trap. I worry every day when he’s driving to work and home again. My fears were a hairsbreadth from reality, yesterday.
And all of this has me thinking about Philemon and Baucis (they’ve been on my mind a bit anyway, as I’ve just finished directing one Much Ado, and am preparing to direct another one, and the text has a reference to “Philemon’s roof.”). Of all the stories in The Metamorphoses, it’s my favorite one. In the story, Jove and Mercury disguise themselves as men and go from door to door, looking for a place to lodge. Every door is slammed in their faces. Finally, they end up at Baucis and Philemon’s poor little cottage (In the Arthur Golding translation, it’s “thatched all with straw and fennish reede,” just like some other cottages I could name). Baucis and Philemon take them in and make them the best feast they can muster. I love Ovid’s attention to the food, which goes on and on. Just a sampling:
This tane away, anon
Came in the latter course, which was of Nuts, Dates, dryed figges,
Sweete smelling Apples in a Mawnd made flat of Oysyer twigges.
And Prunes and Plums and Purple grapes cut newly from the tree,
And in the midst a honnycomb new taken from the Bee.
After all of this, Jove reveals himself and tells Philemon that he will grant any wish they have. Philemon, after “taking conference a little with his wyfe,” says that they wish to serve Jove in his temple (which Jove has just magicked their house into) for all their days, and to both die in the same instant, “that neyther I [Philemon] / Behold my wyves deceace, nor shee see myne when I doo dye.” Jove grants this wish, and they serve him in his temple until one day (note how beautiful and subtle Ovid is here, when you think how very not subtle he could have chosen to be for this moment):
Philemon old and poore
Saw Baucis floorish greene with leaves, and Baucis saw likewyse
Philemon braunching out in boughes and twigs before hir eyes.
And they turn into trees who remain intertwined at the door of Jove’s temple.
When the kids ask me, thirty times a day, what my favorite color is, I always tell them it’s green, and when they ask why, I tell them it’s the color of life. Baucis enters her new life as a tree when she “flourish[es] green.”
Beyond the care and detail Ovid gives this story–more, I think, than many of the others–I love it because of the wish. It’s a wish I have made. But my wish, perhaps because I’m greedier than Baucis and Philemon, extends beyond just my beloved husband. It extends beyond my children and my parents. I’ve lost too many friends in recent years; I’m not prepared to lose any others. What a joyful thing it would be, to never lose nor be lost by the people I care about. But then I remember that they have other people who love them, people I’ve never met and may never meet, but to whom I would never want to cause pain, because of the love they bear for someone I love, and then my wish extends to them, also. I imagine the people I love and the people they love and the people they love branching and intertwining like a forest, as my botanist friends assure me forests really are, deep under the ground where we can’t see their roots jumbling and intermingling, boundaries indistinguishable.
I suppose, if I gave it some thought, that this is my image of the kingdom of God.