by Tricia Gates Brown
“The purpose of life is to be continually defeated by ever greater things.” Rainier Maria Rilke
Fall arrives and most days are unburdened. I’ve made the hard swim of a devastating spring into summer and fall. Though days are brief and stormy, my heart sheds the weight of a strenuous season and lightens. Once again, I wake in the morning and smile at Sybil, asleep at the end of my bed. Again, I invite solitude without anxiousness. After months of silence, I write.
A late October day, my walk takes me past Foley Creek. The stream quickens after a week of rain and the loud splash of a salmon stops me in my tracks. At several points around my neighborhood, roadway meets creek, but at this particular spot, the creek is four feet deep and passes under a small rail-less bridge ideal for watching salmon. Each year the fish who know this as their natal stream congregate to spawn, if female, and to jockey for egg-fertilizing rights, if male. The trail of river and stream leading to this spot on Foley isn’t short. Several miles of vigorous up-river swimming were involved in reaching this bend. Some of the fish are 30+ inches long, having spent years at sea to strengthen for the journey.
For several minutes, I stand and watch. The clear stream reveals brown rocks under the current, reflects golden leaves—vine maple and alder, the black silhouettes of towering spruce. The air is fragrant with the after-rain scent of rotting leaves. The fish themselves transfix. But after a few minutes it feels like watching a distance runner pushing through the final mile. Exciting to witness, even as we sympathize with the crushing fatigue. To me, these salmon look beat, making small headway against the current, then losing ground. I remember the fish are in the last chapter of their lives—a grueling one. And I stand witness.
The next day I am invited to accompany a friend visiting our former priest fading from cancer, in hospice care. For several years, he was a member of the Nehalem Watershed Council, a group credited with the stream repair that brought salmon back up Foley Creek. It has been over two months since last seeing him, and he’s significantly declined. Aside from circles of red on cheeks and the end of his nose, he is pale and his body gaunt and weak. A trip across two rooms is a trek that leaves him winded. Like the salmon, he swims his final mile.
A result of medication and the waning of life, his mind falters a bit, and about a third of what he says is incoherent. Though I’ve not heard him speak it before, here and there he waxes French. Yet there is an uncut sweetness to him. A beautiful simplicity. Not that he wasn’t sweet before. He just held a composure that was authoritative, at times subtly fastidious. Now, even as he shows us his wall of degrees (requiring an ascent upstairs, for him a hike), none of the reserve remains. Only tenderness. Only unabashed love. A friend of mine is a Eucharistic minister who had been bringing him Eucharist on Sundays, and when I ask if she came recently, he tells me how she brings her heart. “Can you tell she was here? Her heart?” he asks me.
The salmon swim hard to their final destiny of procreation. The dying among humans beings swim hard toward something else. To God, surely. But what exactly that looks like, only they know. In some, it brings a gentleness, a kindness to the eyes that reads like volumes of love and is unique in normal life. I saw it in my grandmother (my “Nana”), in my former mother in law, in my old priest. In each case, the way of dying had been hard. It’s not that I’m glorifying death, or overlooking a process terribly painful for many. Yet in some, there is also this sweetening, this generative kindness. Could it be this is what we are moving toward? Could it be God shines through some of the dying as loving-kindness, and that is what we are offered in the end that is really a beginning?
The day after our Spirit-timed visit, our old friend the priest took a turn into total unresponsiveness. Two days later, he died.
Those who have come near death and revived often speak of the all-embracing love they encounter beyond this life. I wonder if apprehension of this all-embracing love, which I would align with God, is our life destiny, the way a salmon’s destiny is procreation. Is new-birth in love our procreative destiny, a destiny that begins this side of the grave?
Love is such an overused word. It is anemic. Of course love is our destiny, but what does that involve? I guess that is what new birth in love means, in part: gradually understanding what God, or eternal love, actually is in its full charge and meaning, its full potency. What is this force that restores all things to wholeness? What does it mean to be fully comprised of it beyond this life, as a splash of ocean water is a part of the endless ocean itself? What does it mean to become less a vessel of ego and role-identification, as we are on this earth, and more the love-ocean itself?
The day after Father George died, I came upon salmon in a stretch of Foley Creek. One was near death, barely moving; the other floating on its side and deceased. The sight brought me to tears. A week later, after heavy storms, I found the creek almost bursting its banks, opaque with mud and raging. If there were living salmon left in that stream, they were fighting hard to complete their destiny of procreation.
If our destiny in this life is to understand—to whatever measure possible—what eternal love is in its full potency so we can be subsumed in it, united with it, when we pass from this earth, how would we grow this understanding? I don’t know. I expect is it different for each of us. But I do know this: that growth in understanding begins with the moment we are in right now. And maybe, as Rilke said, it involves our ego’s defeat by greater and greater things, until we swim into the blasting current long enough to understand what the journey requires. And then surrender to it, with peace and gratitude.
by Tricia Gates Brown