Farewell to Life or Farewell to Death?

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Many years ago, I traveled down a wooded path that I had never been on before.  This story is about how that journey led me to the life that I am living today.

I was eighteen years old.  I had recently graduated from high school.  No awards, no summa anything and no college that would take me even if I had applied.  I always loved to meander in the woods and thoughts of heaven or hell were not intruding on me this bright sunny warm day in June.  As I trod a path that did not look very worn, I suddenly noticed a fork in the trail.  I could just make out somebody sitting between the two roads.  As I drew closer, it was apparent but none the less quite surprising to see that it was an old woman sitting on a log.

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“Good afternoon,” I said to the old woman.  “Same to you, young man,” she replied.  “I have not been on this road before; can you tell me which fork goes where?”  “Well,” she answered, “The right fork is the Farewell to Life fork and the left fork is the Farewell to Death fork.”  Thinking the woman was a little batty, I gave her my thanks, wished her a good day, and proceeded to take the right fork.

I thought a little about her response as I continued on my journey.  I wondered if it really meant anything.  Would one fork bring death and the other life?  I laughed as I assumed that it probably would not matter since I had chosen the life fork.  I was planning to be among the living when I reached its end and not among the dead.  I looked back and the crazy woman was nowhere in sight.

More than fifty-five years have passed since I met the old lady.  I have walked many roads, paddled many rivers, visited many lands, and wondered about the meaning and purpose of life innumerable times.  During my seventy-five years on this earth, I have said dozens of farewells to life.  All of them to date were farewells to the lives of people who were my friends and relatives and mentors.  My father died at 60.  My mother died at 67.  My sister died at 56 and my cousin and best friend died at 47.  Farewell is one of the saddest words in my vocabulary.  As I have aged, the number of farewells that I have had to say each year seems to be growing exponentially.

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A few weeks ago, I was on a solo hike in the Chequamegon National Forest about thirty miles north of Thorp, Wisconsin where my first wife was from.  I was on the Jerry Lake Segment of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail which goes through the Chequamegon National Forest.  I was intending on hiking down the trail to Jerry Lake and back.

Now I have never been known for my sense of direction.  My first wife and I always fought over which way to head but my masculine pride would never admit that she was usually right.  Marrying a second time, I finally found someone whose sense of direction is even worse than mine.  Both Karen and I are lost without a GPS or compass.  The good thing is that I now readily admit that I could get lost in my small back yard.  My masculine pride no longer prohibits me from shouting out “I’m lost.”

As I proceeded down the trail, it seemed that I was not getting any nearer to my intended destination.  It should have taken me about an hour to get to the lake and I had now been hiking for about two hours.  Two thoughts struck me at the same time.  The first was that I was lost.  The second was that I was approaching a fork in the trail ahead and something or someone was sitting between the two paths.  As I neared the fork, I rubbed my eyes just in case I was seeing things.  There on the trail ahead was an old woman who looked suspiciously like the old woman whom I had met fifty-five years before.  Of course, I thought, it could not be.  She would have to be well over a hundred years old.

senior-woman-sitting-log-holding-long-cane-senior-woman-sitting-log-holding-long-cane-countryside-village-people-131962771The strangeness of the situation caused me to be somewhat nervous about proceeding further but I thought, I have nothing to fear from an old lady.  Coming nearer to the woman, I jokingly asked if she was the same old woman whom I had met years ago and if she remembered me.  “Yes”, she said, “but you were much younger then.  How did your journey down the Farewell to Life trail go?”  How could this be I thought?  I don’t believe in magic, miracles, or spirits but suddenly, I began to take her words quite seriously.

“I am not so sure that I took the right trail.  Over the years, I have had to say many farewells to people whom I loved and who passed away long before they should have.  Life does not seem very fair to me.”  “Life is never fair,” she replied.  “Humans weigh things as though some type of cosmic scale existed, and that life could be apportioned perfectly equitably.  You have had a long life.  It has been very successful.  You have had more than your share of fame and fortune.”

“I am very confused.  I chose the Farewell to Life path but what would have happened if I had chosen the Farewell to Death path?  Would I live forever?”  She looked at me very gravely and said “I don’t think you really understand.  The Farewell to Life path is a path where you say farewell to the lives of others.  You yourself then went on to have a long if not happy or prosperous life, did you not?”

“Yes,” I said, “But what would my life have been like if I had chosen the “Farewell to Death path?”  “You would never have had to say farewell to any friends or anyone you cared about.  You would have gone to no funerals, burials, or memorials.  No farewells to the deaths of friends and families.  You would have died many years before those you loved.  Do you think this would have made you happier?  A short life that would have had little tragedy or reason to mourn would have been your legacy.”

“I do not think that would have made me happier.  Why can’t there be a third path in life?  Why are we doomed to either a long life with much unhappiness or a short life where we never experience the joys of getting older and wiser?”

The old woman slowly stood up.  She picked up a hiking stick and proceeded to walk off into the distance.  Before she left, she turned and looked into my eyes.  Very solemnly she explained, “I told you that life is never fair.  Humans always want what cannot be.  Farewell.”

Let life be beautiful like summer flowers and death like autumn leaves. — Rabindranath Tagore

 

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