I have never liked saying goodbye. When I feel the need to cut someone out of my life, I have sought to do so with a minimum of regret or remorse, to make it clinical and complete, to make a clean and tidy job of it. When I truly long to see others again, I do not feel as if goodbye is the right word to say, but I would rather say, “Until we meet again.” In neither case do I like to make a big fuss out of farewells, but rather I like them to be as low-key as possible. It is largely thanks to other people that I have had any kind of farewell celebrations of any kind, because they are not something I have ever planned for myself.
Today I spent a few hours visiting my family just outside of Plant City, a relatively frequent event. This particular get-together was a combination farewell party (for my upcoming and lengthy trip to Thailand, about which I will have much more to say in the near future), birthday party for my younger brother and a particularly dear cousin, and mother’s day. But it was also a farewell party of a much different sort, or at least it felt that way to me.
Perhaps I am simply too grim and morbid of a person, but I could not help feeling that I may never see my grandfather alive again in the flesh. I could not help feeling concerned about how he was doing, or how my grandmother was unsuccessfully trying to get him to say how he was doing. I noticed that my grandfather had lost a lot of weight, how his feet were very swollen, how he seemed to have lost much of his spirited combativeness (a trait that many people in my family share), how he seemed to fade in and out of alertness and even consciousness, and how he looked sallow and had a difficult time standing up or getting around. It was a very somber experience for me.
What made it even more somber was that at least one member of my close family seemed not to be aware of the general mood of the family. It was frustrating to see the dynamic of quarreling and bickering without being able to do anything about it because one did not feel free to say, “Look, buddy, we may never see our grandfather alive again, so why do we have to argue now? There’s plenty of time for us to argue in the future. Why can’t we give a dying man some peace? Is that too much to ask for?”
For most of my life I have thought deeply about death, writing epitaphs for friends, acquaintances, myself , and even those who I never knew but whose deaths were public and significant. When people face their death there is no room for posing, only the realization that one’s deeds are nearly done and that one faces judgment for how one has lived one’s life, how one’s struggling and fighting are nearly over and how one’s time for sleep is nearing. It is a time to set one’s affairs in order, to repair breaches, to attempt to find forgiveness for past errors or the hope or knowledge that one’s life has made a positive effect, in some small way, on the world around.
As I was musing upon the slow torment of watching loved ones suffer a prolonged end, I was faced with the opportunity to muse on a death of a different kind. This evening, as I was watching to see which woman would be “fired” from Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice Show, a press conference preempted the firing to announce that Osama Bin Laden, terrorist chief extraordinaire, had been killed by U.S. Special Forces (apparently Navy Seals) and that the United States had his body. Later on, after a significant delay, it was said that Bin Laden had been killed today, and it was strongly hinted that the intelligence responsible for his death came from elements of the Pakistani intelligence community. Presumably, one of his own associates had ratted him out, and given that he apparently died of a single bullet shot to the head, it would appear as if the death was an execution, whether by American troops or his own treacherous associates it is impossible to say until his body is exposed for public view.
It was impossible for me to mourn the death of such a cold-blooded murderer, but I did not feel like celebrating either. Many live who deserve to die, but many die who deserve to live, and it is not within my power to give life to them. The death announcement seemed too convenient in timing–8 years to the day after “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, preempting the end of Donald Trump’s show even as Trump throws his hat into the ring as an opponent of Obama’s, and less than two months before the first troops are supposed to start exiting Afghanistan. It is a lot easier to leave with one’s face and reputation intact if one has left after accomplishing one’s mission to rid the world of a supremely evil man–and Osama Bin Laden certainly fits that bill, not only for his attacks on innocent American citizens in New York City, Washington DC, and on four planes, or his attacks on American bases and embassies in the world at large, but also for his murderous assaults on Muslims who happen to be slightly less radical than he. And yet there will be many who do mourn his death as a martyr in the fight against the Great Satan, and will promise to avenge his death so that he will not have died in vain. There is no cause so wicked in this evil world that it will not have adherents.
For I too remember that September morning as I woke up bleary-eyed in Los Angeles as an undergraduate student of civil (structural) engineering to the sound of my roommate glued to CNN watching videos of planes crashing into the World Trade Center over and over again, and witnessing (and sharing in) the feeling that those deaths needed to be avenged, but that we needed at the same time to examine ourselves as to why this suffering and this trial had fallen upon us. Since that time I have witnessed a great deal of death, a lot of struggling against enemies abroad and enemies within, and yet I have seen precious little self-examination. I have seen people pointing fingers at others in the guise of national self-examination, but not anyone pointing to their own sins, to their own corruption, or to their own errors.
Perhaps it is my curse that I cannot cease to muse and reflect, no matter how painful the subject, but on a day in which my own thoughts were turned so deeply on mortality, it seemed impossible to avoid contrasting my feelings about the apparently approaching and painfully gradual demise of my beloved grandfather with the well-earned death of an exceedingly wicked and dangerous man, whose legacy is one of hate and destruction, and of the evil spirit of destruction of our times. My grandfather is an obscure man, little known beyond the circle of his family, his former coworkers, his brethren in our religious community, and Bin Laden is a man known and loved and hated by millions. And yet both of them, and all of us, will eventually face our Maker in judgment alone, naked of excuses and self-justification. We will all have to answer for what we have done, whether it is to our credit or to our shame. It is sad that we often prepare so little for so great and so fearsome a task. Let us therefore take this opportunity to reflect on an end when there are no goodbyes, only the realization that what we thought was an end was merely the end of the beginning, or the opening of a new beginning, depending on how we have lived the time set for us on this earth.